Thursday, 29 August 2013

Book Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Title: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Year Published: 1985
Genre: Contemporary fiction, Lesbian fiction, Bildungsroman

The 1991 Introduction to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit describes the novel as experimental, threatening and comforting all at once. The book is said to offer “a complicated narrative structure disguised as a simple one”. It “exposes the sanctity of family life as something of a sham; it illustrates by example that what the church calls love is actually psychosis and it dares to suggest that what makes life difficult for homosexuals is not their perversity but other people’s. Worse, it does these things with such humour and lightness that those disposed not to agree find that they do.” The Introduction also tells us that “[i]n structure and in style and in content Oranges was unlike any other novel” and that its story “has broken down many more barriers than it has reinforced.”

Oh, and did you know? The Introduction was written by the author herself.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, she may very well be right about all of these things, but there’s still something off-putting about it all – she brings to mind that guy you know who spouts his opinions as fact and worse, is somehow always right. My impression of the author, from reading the Introduction, was one of great arrogance. Sadly, this impression was to colour my subsequent reading of the book.

That said, I started off liking Oranges a lot. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s upbringing in a fiercely evangelical Pentecostal family in the UK. The narrator Jeanette has been adopted because her mother wishes to dedicate a child to God, meaning that Jeanette is essentially raised to become a missionary. Her childhood exposes her to her deeply religious mother, her mother’s friends and enemies, and the beliefs of her church. The author has a light touch with her words, using clear language – sorry, that is to say, a “beguilingly straight-forward syntax” – which gives a real child-like innocence and freshness to the book. There’s a quirkiness and humour that touches everything as well – for example, her mother’s vendetta against Next Door, the episode where Jeanette goes deaf and everyone thinks she’s filled with “the Spirit”, and Jeanette’s confusion at her teacher’s failure to appreciate her craft project, which involves cross-stitching the words “THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED.”

About halfway through the story, the narrator reveals herself to be a lesbian. Since I’d heard this novel described as “that orange lesbian book”, I wasn’t surprised; what did surprise me was how suddenly it came about. Her childhood is pretty much asexual then bam, she’s attracted to the ladies. That fact that 1) homosexuality is mentioned and 2) the cast is mostly female (indeed, Jeanette’s father is almost a nonentity) doesn’t count as foreshadowing, not really. When her sexuality emerges, Jeanette doesn’t even question it. She accepts her “Unnatural Passions” pretty easily and only shows confusion and anger when, surprise, surprise, the people at her church do not approve. The way it’s written is in character, I suppose, but I’d expected a little internal conflict or reflection at least, given her religion and all. Whatever the case, it doesn’t happen.

As the book goes on, it veers a bit into magic realism with the appearance of an orange demon. I found this a bit jarring and unnecessary, almost as if it had been put in for quirkiness’ sake. The book also incorporates within it various asides and allegories which carry a distinct fairy-tale mood. I found this charming at first, but over time, they increased in both frequency and abstraction. The chapter ‘Deuteronomy’ is just the author philisomaphising on the nature of history. I found it all a bit excessive and the further I read, the more I was reminded of the Introduction. There’s so much ~symbolism~ (with passages reflecting on themes like perfection, change and so on) that the latter part of the book reeks of self-indulgent literary pomposity. The high (low?) point for me comes on p110, with these profound words:

It is the nature of stone to convert bone.
At one time or another there will be a choice: you or the wall.
Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
The City of Lost Chances is full of those who chose the wall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men.
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

At this point, I had to resist the urge to throw the book across the room.

I mean, this sort of thing might be your cup of tea, and more power to you. It certainly isn’t mine. For me, the value added by these sorts of passages is but a candle to the giant sun of the author’s ego that shines through the same. Perhaps things would have been different if I’d never read the Introduction, but I’ll never know. As it is, it feels like the author added these bits chiefly to show how intellectually enlightened she is. The story could have easily worked without them. And frankly, for a novel with “interests [that] are anti-linear” that’s meant to be “read in spirals”, I didn’t find the structure all that amazing (it’s pretty much chronological with allegorical asides inserted) – nor was it particularly groundbreaking: there are plenty of modernist novels that have weirder/awesomer timeline/point-of-view shenanigans going on. To all those kids who have to analyse this for school: my heart goes out to you poor sods, it really does.

As for what remains of the actual story, well, we see Jeanette dealing with the fallout that comes from her lesbianism being revealed. I’m not sure if she becomes more unlikeable because she actually does unlikeable things (especially with her bitterness towards her ‘first love’), or because I was biased against her due to all the heavy-handed symbolism in the narrative. The book ends somewhat abruptly and I would have liked to see a more rounded finish. This is not to say there has to be a resolution as such, but the way it’s written feels like it was cut off partway through a chapter. Then again, maybe I just failed to appreciate the “spiral narrative” of the book.

I cannot fault the writing; I really enjoyed the style, which was simple and elegant with a pleasing rhythm. I also enjoyed the story of Jeanette’s life, with its humour and quirks and its observations on the church. It was engaging and fun, with a real sense of warmth. After a while though, the symbolic crap started to cloud over everything else, and having read the Introduction, my impression wasn’t so much “Woah mind blown! Deep author is deep!” as it was “Wow, can you get any more pretentious?”.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is indeed a threatening novel. If you happen to be in the same room as me while I’m reading it, you must accept the implicit threat of bodily harm caused by my throwing of the book. Don’t worry too much though, it’s less than two hundred pages and I have weak arms. And more likely than not, I won’t be throwing it – as I said, it’s a mostly enjoyable read.

Alex’s Rating: 3.5/5

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