Novel raises questions of fact, fiction and identity

Summer is the season for reading, for stretching out on the sand with a new thriller, or retreating from the heat into the cool cocoon of an air-conditioned bedroom with a good romance.

It is the season for idleness, sunburn, and transporting oneself to other worlds, times, and planes of existence — a frozen tundra, if you like, or 20,000 leagues under the sea. Anywhere where it’s cooler.

And so, I have been thoroughly enjoying indulging in my favourite habit. I have devoured a number of books since touching down in sunny Auckland — Lisa Taddeo’s harsh but bright Animal, Torrey Peter’s wonderful and poignant Detransition Baby, and Jonas Jonasson’s hilariously sharp The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. After a year of poring over dry academic papers and weighty textbooks, it’s refreshing to read for simple, unadulterated pleasure.

One book in particular, however, has struck a chord with me. I fully realise that I am late to the party here, given that this book was first published in 1985. But luckily there is no ‘‘best-by’’ date when it comes to recommending books. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a coming-of-age novel by Jeanette Winterson about a lesbian girl who grows up in an English Pentecostal community. It is a brilliant, touching, quirky tale, one I highly relate to.

Oranges revolves around Jeanette, who is adopted by zealous evangelicals from the Elim Pentecostal Church in the North of England. Jeanette is an earnest child, who strongly believes she is destined to become a missionary. Everything, however, falls apart when she finds herself falling in love with one of her converts — a girl. The novel adeptly and sensitively handles the painful intersections of religious excess, unorthodox sexuality, guilt, and familial ties. It’s at times joyful and heartbreaking, a fascinating insight into the depth and eccentricities of religious fundamentalism.

Oranges is a semi-autobiographical tale, based in part on Winterson’s life growing up in Accrington, Lancashire. Indeed, Winterson later wrote: ‘‘I wrote about some of these things in Oranges, and when it was published, my mother sent me a furious note’’. I can’t help but admire Winterson’s courage here, in writing about deeply painful and personal experiences, despite the inevitable wrath from her loved ones. This is something I struggle with. What to tell? What to leave unwritten? How do I share the truths from my childhood without hurting or exposing those I love?

But with Oranges, nothing is straightforward. While the trajectory of the character Jeanette clearly resembles the author’s own life, it is not a simple copy and paste job. The novel is an intriguing mix of fact and fiction, of history, autobiography, and storytelling. It defies categorisation. In the preface to the book’s second edition, Winterson writes: ‘‘Is Oranges an autobiographical novel? No not at all and yes of course’’. There is something exciting and intriguing in such ambiguity. The reader can, if she likes, become a Sherlock of sorts. But this is only one way of reading the text.

Upon first release, Oranges was immediately pigeon-holed as a ‘‘lesbian book’’, read almost exclusively through the lenses of the emerging lesbian theories and discourse. It was political, feminist, and radical. But it is more than that. The author herself has rejected the ‘‘lesbian book’’ label, arguing ‘‘No. It’s for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common-sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.’’

Jeanette’s mother is an intriguing and formidable figure, a woman who views the world in black and white: ‘‘There are no shades of grey: She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies.’’ I see much of my own father in these lines. Like the main character’s mother, my father is bold and uncompromising, fixed on a narrow vision of salvation, reworking reality to fit his own understanding of the gospels.

Young Jeanette loves both God and her friend Melanie, but is subjected to all manner of homophobic assaults from those she loves; her mother, her pastor, her church community. The biblical imagery of the novel hammers home the theme of an all-powerful, wrathful, omnipresent God who condemns those who love differently — those bound by ‘‘unnatural passions’’ — to fiery judgement. But gradually, the Bible also becomes a vehicle of escape for the young heroine, a blueprint for resisting her mother’s tyranny, a map to understanding her true self.

There are of course, areas of the book I felt fell short. We are privy to the inner workings of Jeanette’s character and we learn much about her headstrong, obsessive mother, but we know virtually nothing about the girl Jeanette falls in love with. Considering how much Jeanette sacrifices for this love, it would be more enlightening to know more about the relationship.

I will leave you with one of my favourite lines, one which I have found myself returning to again and again this summer, as I visit family, remember my brother, and think about my future. ‘‘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.’’

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

Comments

Is it possible Southern clerics - tub thumping stormy petrels - {metaphor!} were old time critics of exploitation, while socially conservative?

Rev Weddell, anti sweater; 'Plumb' the Maurice Gee character; Bishop Pyatt, dubbed 'trendy lefty' by Robt Muldoon.

Romances retreated with are novels, Penelope.

 

 

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