Jeanette Winterson's first novel, Oranges Aren't the Only fruit, was the latest book read by the IFN Book Club. Its main character, Jeanette, talks about her childhood growing up in a Fundamentalist Christian home, with an adoptive mother who isn't emotionally available and a father that hardly speaks. Her upbringing is marked by intense Bible readings, mixed feelings and strong self-belief.
While her mother's voice is dominant in their home, her father is practically mute. This brings up the topic of gender roles. Men are scarce in the novel, with the exception of Pastor Spratt and Jeanette's father. Furthermore, Jeanette is accused of being too male/masculine, which is put down to her wielding too much power, preaching at Church and teaching Sunday school. The mother's relationship with a French boy, Pierre, adds something to the novel’s commentary on male-female relationships. We learn that she spent the night with him and ended up going to the doctor to discover she had a stomach ulcer. That fuzzy feeling wasn’t love after all! Her unwavering decision to follow the path of the righteous was her saving grace. This is a woman determined to have her daughter follow in her footsteps, and avoid falling foul of sins of the flesh. Not like their next-door neighbours who fornicate loudly on Sundays!
In terms of the women represented in the novel, we have the women in the church, Jeanette's friend Elsie, Jeanette's girlfriends, her mother and a very brief account of her birth mother. Jeanette's relationships with Melanie, and later Katy, have the ups and downs of any teen romance but Melanie's betrayal hurts Jeanette intensely – she was able to justify her love for both Melanie and God and saw nothing wrong with loving both. Her church performs an exorcism, their form of gay conversion. Afterwards Jeanette is seduced by Miss Jewsbury, an older member of the church, which leaves her with mixed feelings once again. Meanwhile, one of Jeanette’s only friends in the novel, Elsie, provides support for her inside and outside the Church, and seems to be a genuine, loving and religious person at heart.
The religious fervour of their church, the Society of the Lost, is prevalent throughout the novel, whether it's through the members of the group singing and praying in protest, or converting more souls for Christ. Related to this theme of religious belief, is the testing of Jeanette's own during the exorcism, aiming to rid her of her ‘demons’. She experiences a vision of an orange demon that tells her to make a choice - either continue as she is or make a change. Clearly, her self-belief and faith in God give her the strength to make that decision. Unable to live at home any longer due to her mother's insistence that she’s evil, Jeanette takes a job in a funeral parlour, sells ice cream from a van and eventually moves out of town. After some time away, she returns home to visit her parents. Technology has arrived in the form of an electric organ and new radio but the religious fervour remains.
This book would be good for teens, not just as a coming out story but also as the journey of a teenager who questions the life she's living and searches for a true self. There are some parallels between this novel and the writer's own life, but as Winterson says: "Oranges is the document, both true and false, which will have to serve for my life until I went to Oxford, and after that I daresay that whatever I tell you will be another document, one that is both true and false."
I urge you to read this book. Please give it to somebody you know when you're done – sharing is caring.
Review by Emma Keenan
November IFN Book Club – Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women by Susan Faludi
What happened to feminism is the 1980s? You might have heard that it finally succeeded, or that it finally failed. In Backlash, Susan Faludi argues convincingly that the setbacks feminism experienced during that decade were due to a cultural backlash against the advances women were making.
At first glance, Backlash may seem like a daunting read, 498 pages of small print, packed with research and stats, full of venom for those who participated in waging ‘the undeclared war against women’. Most book-club attendees agreed that it was difficult to get through, American-centred and perhaps dated. It was published in 1992.
On the other hand, the book provided no shortage of outraging facts for us to discuss. Faludi’s academic approach and comprehensive research (80 pages of footnotes!) lends her a lot of credibility. Backlash bears witness to some grave injustices, like the female chemical plant workers who were told to get sterilized or lose their jobs (to Hell or to Connaught!) due to trumped-up fears over the effects of some chemicals on foetal development. In fact, alongside its facts and figures the book offers real insights into women’s lives, via Faludi’s innumerable interviews with women about their experiences. Thus she compiles an immensely readable and important social history (or should I say herstory).
This relatively recent herstory is vital context for modern feminist campaigners. Faludi paints a full picture of the cultural landscape of the 80s and its effects on women. She analyses the fashion and beauty industries, women in politics and popular psychology among other topics. Members of the book-club were struck by the dated feel of some stories (that would never happen today!), and the familiarity of others. We balked in disbelief at the description of the ‘Women who love too much’ groups, where grown women were encouraged to cuddle teddy bears blame themselves for the abusive behaviour of their partners. Meanwhile we recognised the magazine stories celebrating single women finally being taken off the shelf after forty. In Sex in the City 2 (2010), Carrie’s magazine celebrates her no longer being ‘the last single girl in New York’ upon her engagement to Big. After all, ‘women are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married after forty’.
This is just one of the multitudes of myths that Faludi exposes in Backlash. Spawned throughout the decade, they are best summed up in tabloid ‘trend stories’. Journalists would handpick a few women with a particular condition and portray this as a condition of all women, for example ‘nesting’ (the return of the domestic goddess) or ‘burnout’ (you can’t have it all). This misinformation explains the confused legacy of feminism in popular culture. Why do most women no longer call themselves feminists? Because feminism has succeeded and we’re all equal now. Because feminism has failed and we’re better off without it. Because feminists are militant wet blankets.
Understanding where this perception has come from is an invaluable tool in reclaiming the f-word. As the story of the latest blimp on the radar of our movement, Backlash illustrates both how far we have come and what’s left to do. I would appeal to you to read this book.
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