A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?
I have been meaning to read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for a long time. It was an experience much heightened by reading it alongside the autobiography Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. Oranges has always been read as a story based on Jeanette Winterson’s life, a parallel that seems unavoidable when you call your main character by your own name and give her an upbringing very similar to your own. Winterson refers to her autobiography as Oranges‘ ‘silent twin’ and I read it as a way to compare fiction with fact. I enjoyed reading the two books together and think I got much more from them than if I had read them individually. Actually, I find it hard to separate them now.
These are stories from a specific time. Accrington in the seventies sounds more like the 1940s – I thought the descriptions of daily life were completely fascinating because what was only forty years ago seems so alien now. The religious upbringing and church community had the same effect. In her Introduction to Oranges Winterson says she doesn’t agree with the assumption that women’s writing is constrained to their experiences. Whilst the story of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is influenced by her life, she is also quite experimental. The Bible is muddled up with fiction, biography and altered personal history.
If I had to choose a favourite, I think I would pick Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and not just because truth is stranger than fiction. It is written with the hindsight of age and with the freedom must have arisen from the death of her adoptive parents. I assume Winterson chose not to write or publish a memoir whilst her mother and father were alive, but perhaps this is nothing more than an assumption on my part. I think writing about what was (to outsiders at least) a cruel and unusual upbringing must have been easier when it was hidden behind the label of ‘fiction’. It must be hard to bare all when you are very likely to offend real and named family.
I also loved Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? because Jeanette Winterson is a reader. In her childhood reading represented passion and exploration. I talked about how this past fortnight has reminded me that reading is about adventure and doesn’t always have to be prescribed or studious. Reading Jeanette Winterson was well suited to this mindset:
It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations. Reading is where the wild things are.