Jeanette Winterson is a British author, whose works I can only describe as fascinating and hypnotizing. They often deal with love and loss and include lgbt+ themes. But Winterson refuses to tell these stories chronologically and in a linear fashion. Instead, her works have an experimental character to them, with many intertextual influences. However, this post will not be about all her works, but about two specific ones: her first, autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
What Are the Books About?
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is about a girl called Jeanette (yes, she has the same name as the author), who gets adopted by Pentecostal parents and raised by her mother to become a future missionary. When she falls in love with another girl at sixteen, she not only has to leave the church, but also her home.
Winterson calls this novel in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? a semi-autobiographical novel: “I told my version – faithful and invented, accurate and misremembered, shuffled in time.” In her memoir, Winterson discusses the same early years as in Oranges, but also goes far beyond them.
Oranges was published in 1985, while Why Be Happy only came out in 2011. What happened in the meantime? Quite a lot, actually: Jeanette Winterson went to Oxford, published several books, Oranges was adapted into a tv-series by the BBC, she had several relationships with women, had mental health problems, survived a suicide attempt and searched for and found her biological family. She does not just tell the story of her life, though. She also shares her thoughts on academia, politics and feminism; describes how reading and writing saved her life several times. I particularly enjoyed reading her thoughts on love, romantic as well as familial, and adoption.
My Thoughts on the Books
My First Encounter With Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
I read Oranges for the first time for a university class. That was very much at the beginning of my academic career and I was admittedly pretty confused. Namely because in the discussion my friends in class were talking about how funny they had found the book. Because I could not comprehend what they meant, I genuinely doubted my English skills.
Years later, after I had read the book for the second time, I can recognize which parts my friends had found funny. Still, I would use the term black comedy, if at all. For example, the mother was considered a funny character. She is overzealous, hypocritical and may every now and again contribute to the comedy of the situation, but her extreme control over Jeanette and the fact that she betrays her daughter make her into a monster for me. (I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but some things she does to her daughter are unforgivable in my eyes, especially after reading additional information in the memoir)
The Fragmented Narration
One of the features of this novel is the fragmented and non-linear narration. Interspersed throughout the text are short, fairytale like stories, that mirror Jeanette’s life. It seems like Jeanette, the narrator, is processing her life through these stories that she tells herself. For example, the story of a character called Winnet Stonejar, who gets adopted by an evil wizard, is told in this way. The story is a fantasy version of Jeanette’s life.
In Why Be Happy, Winterson explains, that she wrote her version of her life in Oranges: “I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful.” She kept many parts of her real life and changed others to write a story she could live with.
Similarly, Jeanette, the narrator, seems to re-tell her version of her story again and again. The first time I read the book, I was not so delighted by the fairytale like stories in the novel. I thought they differed to much in tone from the rest of the novels and thus, I did not take pleasure in them. Now, they don’t bother me as much. Still, I would like the book more, if stories appeared less often.
Who Tells What Story?
The fragmented narration peaks in the fifth chapter. This chapter does not actually further the story, but is instead essentially an essay about storytelling and the nature of time, facts, fiction and history. Here, she, among other things, writes about how stories can be used to manipulate and control people. She basically writes about the unreliability of narrators, as well as the problems of historiography. This is a fascinating topic, in my opinion, – especially in a semi-autobiographical novel – that I would like to read more about in the future.
“Of course that is not the whole story, but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time. Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently.“Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, page 119.
Religion and Jeanette
Finally, I want to address one of the most important themes of the novel: religion. Jeanette’s parents, her mother in particular, are very religious and their whole lives revolve around the church. Her mother’s goal was to raise Jeanette to be the perfect missionary. The same was also true for Jeanette Winterson, the author. Therefore, she has extensive knowledge on the Bible and uses this in her novel, too.
There are not only biblical themes and stories that appear over and over again, but the whole novel’s structure is based on the Bible. The chapters are named after the first eight books of the Bible and readers that are well-versed with their content, will surely find many parallels between the books. Jeanette’s mother in the novel uses religion to establish and hold control over her daughter, while Winterson, the author, uses religion to – despite all the fragmentation – provide her narrative with unity and exert her own kind of control.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
When I had read Oranges for the first time, I would not have considered myself a Jeanette Winterson fan by far. But then I stumbled upon Why Be Happy in the library. When had talked in class about autobiographical aspects of Oranges. So, when I found the memoir of the author, I was eager to find out what was “truth” and what was “fiction”.
I had only read a few pages, when I immediately returned the book and ordered my own copy from the book shop. That’s how much I had loved the book from the very beginning.
Why Be Happy is also partly non-linear in its structure. Winterson describes in detail her thoughts and feelings on a variety of topics and themes, that also re-appear in her other works, throughout the memoir. Consequently, you don’t just get background information on Oranges, but her other books as well. You find out where her influences come from and why she writes the way she does.
Parts of the book were seriously heartbreaking to me. I felt for Jeanette Winterson. At this point, I would also like to warn readers of the content the memoir. Winterson details her mental health struggles, calls herself crazy and generally describes some very dark times in her life. Among other things, a suicide attempt is described. Readers that like to avoid books with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, should skip this one.
I am aware that this book (and Oranges as well) sounds pretty miserable, but it is not just about Winterson reaching rock bottom, but also how she fights her way back out of that low point. Readers are allowed a look into time and space that Jeanette Winterson grew up in and into her psyche as well as philosophy. But she never lets one forget, that they are reading just her version of the story. “I have a memory – true or not true?”
Why Be Happy and Oranges will always be insepperably connected in my mind. They are two versions of the same story, that someone tells you on two occasions. Once with more fairytales, biblical themes and in an experimental way; then with more philosophical and political ponderings of a truly fascinating person. Personally, I prefer the Why Be Happy version.