It is a very long time since I read Oranges are not the only fruit – but it is a book that has stayed with me ever since. Recently I have seen several really good reviews of this autobiography from the author of that famous novel. That novel is famously autobiographical, but Winterson tells us in this book, that her childhood wasn’t really like that depicted in “oranges” it was in fact worse than that.
“There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that”.
Jeanette Winterson was born in 1959, adopted by her strict Pentecostal parents and brought to Accrington. It was a landscape of long streets of terraced houses, a northern town often drenched in rain. Jeanette who was told when she was naughty – that the devil had taken them to the wrong crib – was at odds with her mother right from the start. Mrs Winterson – as she almost always calls her – was a harsh unyielding woman. She would sit up all night – to avoid sharing a bed with her husband, she kept a revolver in the duster drawer and two sets of false teeth (one for best). The stories of Mrs Winterson’s larger than life monstrousness come thick and fast, but I won’t relate any more of them here. If Mrs Winterson was a fictional character – she would be a masterly invention. The fact that she was real possibly makes her more monstrous. Frequently Jeanette was locked out of the house – forced to spend the night sitting on the doorstep. She discusses her idea of home and what it is to belong to somewhere.
“Our own front door can be a wonderful thing, or a sight we dread; rarely is it only a door.”
As Jeanette grows up she discovers two things – things which are forbidden – books, and that she fancies other girls.
“I was sixteen and my mother was about to throw me out of the house forever, for breaking a very big rule, even bigger than the forbidden books. The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex.”
Winterson writes with a fantastic wry humour that belies the darkness of her much of her story. It is a dark story – the story of a lonely child – who screamed until she was two – an image that haunted me as someone who works with children I found that unbelievably poignant. She is very honest about how growing up in such an atmosphere affected her and her relationships – as surely it must. It is the story of how Winterson became the woman she is today, the story of her love of books and writing, the story of her search for her birth mother, and a story that is at last ultimately uplifting.
I enjoyed Winterson’s writing style enormously; it makes for a quick accessible read, packed with funny and sad stories of Jeanette Winterson’s childhood and adolescence.