by Jeanette Winterson, Vintage Books 2014
[First published in Great Britain in 1985 by Pandora Press]
I’ve just finished reading this modern classic, which resonates in several ways with the piece I am writing for my MA course. Here are a few thoughts:
In her introduction to the 2014 Edition, Winterson comments on the placing of her book first in the cookery (preserves) section and later in the Gay and Lesbian section of bookshops, remarking that “had I been a straight white male the confidence of the writing and the experiment with form and material would have put it there [in the Literature section] to begin with”.
Is the writing confident, and what was the experiment she refers to? She certainly has the retrospective benefit of knowing that her book has been a huge success, and so she may feel more able to describe her writing as confident than she would if it had stayed in the preserves section indefinitely. The writing is certainly impressive when you consider that she wrote it in her mid-twenties, but it is not perfect. Perhaps perfection is too high a standard for anyone though. It is very, very good, and deserves its reputation.
As to the experiment, I am less clear as to what Winterson thinks she was doing. Was it her use of her own life as the substrate for fiction – the fictionalising of her own autobiography? Or was it the interweaving of extracts of modern parable into the narrative, as a means of safely highlighting and further exploring aspects of her character’s situation?
I’m not sure the parables worked so well for me. They seemed rather lengthy ways of saying what had perhaps already been said, or at least implied, in the main body of the text. The language and imagery in them was rich, but they did rather break the flow of the narrative, so as a reader I felt obliged to plough through them before getting to the next bit of the story. I resisted the temptation to skip over them altogether, but I was tempted.
The parables seemed to be a device in which the narrator was able to have her say – to pass comment on the story – albeit in an indirect manner. They were quite clearly the voice of an older and wiser narrator, and that voice becomes increasingly prominent as the book goes on. At the beginning we meet Jeanette, aged seven, and her family, and the narrator, while clearly the person telling the story, is relatively in the background. However as the narrative progresses there is an increasing sense that the narrator herself has a great deal to say: a great number of thoughts and opinions on the situation that she wishes to impart. The parables are one means by which she endeavours to do this, while remaining cloaked. She reveals herself more clearly in the chapter entitled ‘Deuteronomy’. Here she digresses from the narrative for an entire chapter, and simply talks as herself. She is preaching here: the language is of the preacher that her seven-year-old self becomes in the middle part of the book, and later rejects. She is telling us things she feels we should know. She uses the word ‘should’, which is a word preachers like a lot:
“History should be a hammock for swinging and a game for playing, the way cats play. Claw it, chew it, rearrange it and at bedtime it’s still a ball of string full of knots. Nobody should mind. Some people make a lot of money out of it. Publishers do well, children, when bright, can come top. It’s an all-purpose rainy day pursuit, this reducing of stories called history.
People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious […] Knowing what to believe had its advantages. It built an empire and kept people where they belonged, in the bright realm of the wallet…” [Deuteronomy, p.119-120]
The chapter names – all chapters from the Bible – are also curious. They clearly have meaning to Winterson, and may have implicit meaning to those with detailed insider knowledge of the Bible. But for those like me who come from a different religious tradition, there is no explanation of their significance. They are not directly referred to in the text. Perhaps Winterson assumed she was writing for a predominantly Christian audience, or perhaps at the time of writing she was so enmeshed with her own Christian reality that she was unable to see that there might be other realities, and readers who do not automatically understand what she is talking about. Perhaps I should go on to read the Bible next, but that would be quite an undertaking and, unlike the reading of ‘Oranges’, could not be completed in a few days. I rather think a book should stand alone (it does, if you let the Biblical references pass) as a complete thing, although I am not averse to looking up odd references, so enhancing my own learning and reading experience.
At the end of the book it seems that the character of Jeanette, now grown up and returning home for Christmas, and the narrator, have almost merged. The narrator is only the adult Jeanette, having returned to her life after Christmas and sat down to write about the experience. She repeats the point she has made earlier in ‘Deuteronomy’, that:
“Time is a great deadener; people forget, get bored, grow old, go away. She said that not much had happened between us anyway, historically speaking. But history is a string full of knots, the best you can do is admire it, and maybe knot it up a bit more.”
Her punctuation is slightly problematic in places too, but that may just be me being a pedant and a stickler for detail.
With the exception of the parables, which take a bit of concentration, Oranges is certainly an easy read. By that I don’t mean that it is simple, but that the narrative flows forwards largely without stumble or hiccup. It has been made into a Television drama, and I am sure that a great deal of its texture will have been lost (I did watch it years ago): there is so much in the book that simply could not translate.
When I started reading it the first thing that struck me was that it was funny. That kept me reading. Later I began to feel a bit uncomfortable with the humour. It began to feel mocking: the laughs were always at someone else’s expense, and that person was usually her mother. I wondered what Winterson’s relationship with her mother is actually like, and how it had coped with the writing of this book. There was little in the way of sympathy – of understanding her mother’s predicament or point of view, or of recognising that she may have a different but nevertheless equally valid perspective. This is in keeping with the general position taken by contemporary society towards evangelical Christians (or religious fundamentalists of any sort), and so will perhaps have been met with greater applause than a more complex (and more accepting) philosophical treatment may have done. We are lead to dislike the church members, who are ultimately undone, and her mother is in conclusion cast as a wicked sorceror, rather than a fragile woman who has loved and raised her daughter to the best of her ability according to her particular, and difficult, situation, and limited understanding of the world.