Jeanette Winterson describes the shape of her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in the following passage from her Introduction:
I really don’t see the point of reading in straight lines. We don’t think like that and we don’t live like that. Our mental processes are closer to a maze than a motorway, every turning yields another turning, not symmetrical, not obvious. Not chaos, either. A sophisticated mathematical equation made harder to unravel because X and Y have different values on different days (xii).
Winterson wrote the novel at only 24 years old, and her spiraling narrative is at once an elegant fairy tale, a love story, a spiritual quest, and a memoir, with a preternatural capacity for relatively recent self-reflection that is by turns touching and hilarious. The author made no secret of the autobiographical contents of her novel: “Is Oranges autobiographical? No, not at all, and yes, of course!” (Introduction)
Winterson colors the book with wry details and absurd characters drawn from a childhood of fervent religious agonies and ecstasies, sounding at times like a more puckish David Sedaris. The pastor of the congregation is bug-eyed and paranoid, blessing sandwiches and cursing children in a single breath. A parishioner who teaches the oboe has a grotesquely protuberant mouth and is fond of shouting. Another parishioner, Elsie Norris is a numerologist, and therefore “never reads the Word without first casting the dice to guide her” (11). Elsie appears chomping oranges toothlessly with Jeanette, the young narrator, after church services throughout the novel as a sort of comical leitmotif. The protagonist’s mother is a woman who sleeps two hours a night whose religious devotion is portrayed as all-consuming mania. With psychotic zeal, she plays the piano, prays, and curses the world of sin, referring to public schools as “Breeding Grounds for Satan” and screaming the word “fornicators” into her neighbors’ yard. Jeanette, her daughter, and the author’s double, is an earnest member of the flock and intends to devote her life missionary work. When Jeanette falls in love with a young female convert and the affair is betrayed to the community, the church stages an elaborate near-exorcism of an intervention, eventually expelling her from the community and damning Jeanette’s love as a sin of “Unnatural Passions.”
Jeanette’s banishment leads her to a spiraling inward reflection in an attempt to reconcile the problematic church that has raised her with her innocent young love:
She found a map rolled up around a broom handle; the map showed the forest, and the edges of the forest where the towns began. She found the river, placid and shrunk, but growing to a huge mouth where she had once lived; the river belted the sacred city, and splitting itself like a cut worm, flowed variously into the sea. (154)
The novel as a whole is complex but compulsively readable, tender and timeless; as Jeanette Winterson puts it, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is “a comforting novel.”
Winterson sings of herself, obliquely, and directly to all those hurtling through a time of growth and paradox, when she writes:
Its heroine is somewhat outside of life...she has to deal with big questions that cut across class, culture and colour. Everyone, as some time in their life, must choose whether to stay with a ready-made world that may be safe but is also limiting, or to push forward, often past the frontiers of commonsense, into a personal place, unknown and untried. (xiv, Introduction)
FInd Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit at Books Actually, as well as other books by Jeanette Winterson such as Sexing the Cherry, Written on the Body and Lighthousekeeping.