Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterson

Winner of the Whitbread Prize for best first fiction, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a coming-out novel from Winterson, the acclaimed author of The Passion and Sexing the Cherry. The narrator, Jeanette, cuts her teeth on the knowledge that she is one of God’s elect, but as this budding evangelical comes of age, and comes to terms with her preference for her own sex, the peculiar balance of her God-fearing household crumbles.

I picked up this book on a whim, knowing it wasn’t overly long and that it dealt with issues I wasn’t familiar with. I had heard a few people talking about it and I’d heard good things about Jeanette Winterson’s writing style.I have mixed feelings about this novel.

In many ways I found it fascinating, captivating, and a very worthwhile read. The main themes of the novel are religion and sexuality, which to me are two things I am relatively unfamiliar with. I have never really belonged to a religion, although having been educated primarily about Christianity throughout my life. I have not read many books about religious characters, or books from the perspective of a somebody who is struggling with their sexuality. This is something I am trying to change in my reading. So for me, it was fascinating for the two themes to be combined together in this novel.

This novel was a perfect example of why I love reading. I was able to get inside the head of a character (from the introduction we learn she is an almost but not quite true to life extension of Jeanette Winterson herself) who was struggling with their sexuality in a religious surrounding. It discusses her development of these feelings, and how she is taught to believe her sexuality is a sin and how she tries to ‘fix’ herself. Jeanette convinced me from the get go of how suffocating and claustrophobic her life was under her religious upbringing, and I found it both very interesting and emotional to see her struggle with her sexuality.

Coming out as being of any sexual orientation other than straight is already a struggle, but when combined with the religious element, Jeanette stresses how difficult it was. I felt like I was in the story alongside Jeanette, watching her struggles, and it was fascinating. You spend the whole book hoping she will be accepted by her mother and community, although at the same time knowing it won’t happen.

I feel now that I better understand the struggles of the LGBT community, and the inner conflicts they experience, and the search for acceptance they have to struggle with. This book was both hard hittingly emotional and insightful for me.

What I found interesting as well as the reoccurring theme of religious people not understanding Jeanette’s sexuality, was the idea of non religious people understanding Jeanette’s highly Christian community. Jeanette highlights her struggles of trying to be understood at school. I found this fascinating as well as it really added to this idea that no matter what the subject is, whether it be religion or homosexuality, if people don’t understand they may behave badly, or be fearful or prejudiced.

The writing was absolutely stunning. There were times where I had to stop and highlight because I found the writing so beautiful. For example:

Reading is an adventure. Adventures are about the unknown. When I started to read seriously I was excited and comforted all at the same time. Literature is a mix of unfamiliarity and recognition. The situation can take us anywhere- across time and space, the globe, through the lives of people who can never be like us- into the heart of anguish we have never felt- crimes we could not commit. Yet as we travel deeper into the strange world of the story, the feeling we get is of being understood- which is odd when you think about it, because at school learning is based on whether or not we understand what we are reading. In fact it is the story (or the poem) that is understanding us. Books read us back to ourselves.” (Taken from the introduction.)

However, I have a few issues with this book also. Although I enjoyed it for the most part and found it quite insightful, there were quite a few times I thought that certain things were not explained or were glossed over, to the point where it bothered me and I wished I knew more.

Another issue I had with this book was the use of the fairytales/mythical stories. Throughout the book there are fantasy stories that span a couple of pages at a time. I did not understand the relevance of these and felt they added to the story in no way. They bored me to the point where I wanted to skip through them back to Jeanette’s story, however I read through them to see if I could spot the relevance.

Despite these issues, I did enjoy this read and would like to pick up some more Jeanette Winterson in the future. Any recommendations would be appreciated. I would give this book a 3 out of 5 star rating, and would recommend it to anybody, especially those possibly struggling with their sexuality or religion.

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