Oranges are not the Only Fruit is Book #237 on the 1001 Book List and this review was first published in August 2012.
Oranges are not the Only Fruit is the 1985 winner of the Whitbread Award for First Novel.
The novel follows the early life and coming of age of Jeanette, a young girl adopted into a working class evangelical family. It is set in the bleakness of a mill town in the north of England in the 1960s.
Jeanette is brought up to preach and convert the Heathen. Her mother intends her to be a missionary for their church, in the mould of her spiritual guide and missionary idol, Pastor Spratt. All is going along as per the plan, even with detours to “the breeding ground”, also known as school, because her mother might go to jail otherwise. Jeanette is a natural orator and is excellent at converting folk to the church, until one day she falls in love.
And her first love affair challenges her faith, her church and ultimately her relationships with everyone.
Rather like my experience of reading The White Tiger, I was in two minds as I read through this short novel. One part of me loved the writing style and the humour of the storytelling, while the other part of me flinched repeatedly at the story being told and the behaviour of the characters, especially Jeanette’s mother.
To give you an example of the writing style and her mother we can start right at the beginning, on the first page of the novel.
My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.
She hung out the largest sheets on the windiest days. She wanted the Mormons to knock on the door. At election time in a Labour mill town she put a picture of the Conservative candidate in the window.
She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.
Enemies were: The Devil (in his many forms)
Sex (in its many forms)
Friends were: God
The Novels of Charlotte Brontë
And so we are introduced to Mother. She does not really improve on reading, but she certainly is a character and a half. Devout to the point of madness, eye-wateringly so from early on in the book.
In the end I really enjoyed reading this short novel and just like The White Tiger there is plenty to think about as you go. I found the style of writing extremely easy going, and I loved the dark humour. Blacker than black humour. Jeanette is not a gushy character; she comes across as disconnected and very dry and I can see how readers may find her to be oddly remote and unsympathetic. I didn’t find that aspect particularly off-putting at all though. The oddity of her upbringing alone would give ample opportunity for such distancing.
I would like to share some more excerpts so you can get a feeling for the writing style.
In a passage where Jeanette is relating how she learned to read by reading Deuteronomy, we get this little gem of humour.
Deuteronomy had its drawbacks; it’s full of Abominations and Unmentionables. Whenever we read about a bastard, or someone with crushed testicles, my mother turned over the page and said, ‘Leave that to the Lord,’ but when she’d gone, I’d sneak a look. I was glad I didn’t have testicles. They sounded like intestines only on the outside, and the men in the Bible were always having them cut off and not being able to go to church. Horrid.
Then a little later we come to a Christmas incident where the church is sharing space with the Salvation Army and caroling with them. Unfortunately the ladies of the church and their tambourines have more enthusiasm than musical skill, leading to this passage.
This meant regular rehearsals with the Salvation Army, always a problem because our tambourine players invariably lost the beat. This year, the General wondered if we’d like to stick to singing.
‘It sez make a joyful noise,’ May reminded him.
When the General ventured to suggest a less than literal interpretation of this psalm, there was uproar. For a start it was heresy. Then it was rude. Then it meant dissension amongst our flock. Some of us could see the sense of it, some of us were outraged. We argued until the tea and biscuits came round, then the General made his own decision. Anyone who wanted to play the tambourine might do so in their own church, not in his rehearsals, and not at the carol singing itself.
And I could go on picking out passages like this. At once affectionate and human, yet also full of ridicule.
I now understand why Winterson has so many books in the list, and I will be picking up another as soon as it is available at the library.
Interestingly this is considered to be semi-autobiographical, and Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? will be going on my reading list simply to see just how autobiographical Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is and how she survived such an outlandish upbringing.