"Tha mother's mad, tha knows."

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

(This review appeared in the ReadReverb newsletter, Feb 3, 2006, and on the ReadReverb website)

So this is what Alan Bennett's been trying to do with those dreadful bloody Talking Heads all these years. Jeanette Winterson, with her debut novel, has managed to flesh out a rich, tortured, brittle, and above all Northern ageing lady in a way that Bennett never could. Poor Bennett, trying to recreate his mother, or at least rebuild his mother's shattered mind, while Winterson---and the main character is called Jeanette, notice---breezes through fluid gorgeous prose while fitting together a character both easy to construct and (well, she should be) impossible to convincingly maintain: a harridan, an interfering, self-righteous, bigoted, over-religious Protestant old baggage. But all the time, like the young narrator, you love this dreadful woman as much as you hate her.

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is a novel about the relationship between a young girl and her mother, as the former tries desperately to become an adult and the latter foot-binding her with edicts and passages from the Bible. None of the saints, though: God forbid. It moves slowly and thematically through the life of the daughter, while the mother tries her hardest to be constant and unyielding, not bending to the looser, more liberal lifestyle her daughter is trying to adopt.

There's always a lot made about the sex, of course. The torrid antics of the main character, and the hints of it that occur in relation to the local sweetshop owners who, in the words of Mother, "'dealt in unnatural passions.' I thought she meant they put chemicals in the sweets." But through subtle touches---photos disappearing overnight from old albums, hints of affairs that weren't just with Mother's "downfall" Pierre---all is linked back to Mother. Mother is the subject, and Jeanette is just a cipher, bringing her Mother to three-dimensional life, created by that Protestant God, almost solely in order to create Mother in turn for the reader. Even in the deepest of despairs Jeanette seems resigned to her fate: as the narrator she can see it coming. But her mother battles on, against Satan and evil, against the fornicators next door and under her very roof. The resignation springs from the knowledge that, whatever Jeanette's story, her mother's must be told too.

There are faux-naive sections that cut with the main narrative and are intrusive, gauche and sluggish, and although they develop well through the book---moving from children's stories through to adolescent girls' stories---they are juxtaposed clumsily and suddenly, and thus jar with the harshness of Mother's reality. Ultimately the story is only ever at home in the imperialism of her laws that are not her laws, but what she hears every Sunday, learns from the pastor, picks up from her CB radio as she calls prayerfully into the night, "This is Kindly Light calling Manchester... come in Manchester, this is Kindly Light" and waits forever for the response.