A coming-of-age and coming-out story at the same time, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit held me captive for two evenings in November last year. The semi-biographical work of fiction is short but packed with fantastical stories and bitter-sweet memories.
Young Jeanette is growing up in a Pentecostal household in the dreary Midlands in the ’60s. Few circumstances could provide a worse start in life for a girl who doesn’t truly believe in God, is gay, and wants an education. Coming to terms with her sexuality and the way she’s different from most of the girls her age is challenging, but somehow Jeanette manages to remain sane and ends up finding her own way.
Jeanette’s upbringing is often what leads to destroyed souls ad crashed dreams, so I admired the semi-fictional character for her strength. It’s really something to go to Oxford and become a world-famous writer after you’ve had to overcome your mother and church condemning you for your “unnatural passions. The pressures of conformity are nasty anytime, but the 60’s were truly harsh for this kind of business.
Nevertheless, the book is poetic and funny at times, and it involves a funeral parlour and an ice-cream van. Not your typical coming-of-age story, but still something you’ll have a hard time forgetting.
“I have a theory that every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.”
Young Jeanette has a hard time making choices in a world where no one is keen to validate anything that’s unconventional.
“Everyone thinks their own situation most tragic. I am no exception.”
And of course, she is aware that her life is going to be a difficult one, so she embraces any form of escapism that’s within her reach. She also has a rather odd relationship with God, particularly for someone whose mother arranged an exorcism for her at 16 when she found out she might be gay.
“I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it.”
Next Winterson book on my list is “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal,” another semi-biographical work that I hope will get me on another fascinating ride into Jeanette’s mind.