When the tv adaptation of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was screened in 1990 it was compulsive viewing. The story of a girl raised by strict Pentecostalists in a Lancashire town who struggles with her adoptive parents reaction to her sexuality had me gripped each week. It was both bleak and beautiful – it seemed, somehow, important.
I’m not sure if I realised at the time that Oranges was semi-autobiographical – I think I was too busy being thrilled by the wonderful Charlotte Coleman – but I know the heroine Jess’s life was vastly different from my own. Oddly, when I started reading this book, Jeanette Winterson’s first volume of autobiography, one of the first things that struck me was a similarity between us – a love of books and stories. I wasn’t reading as a means of escaping a woman who makes all the wicked step-mothers of fairy tales seem like pussycats – I just liked the freedom of losing myself in a book – but I felt I could understand her joys even if her troubles were totally alien to me.
This book is a brutally honest but almost poetic account of a life. It has all the ingredients of a misery memoir – an overly strict and apparently uncaring mother, isolation from other children and nights spent in the coal bunker* – but they are stirred into a totally different dish. Mrs Winterson is a huge character both literally and figuratively but I think I see in her part of the source of her daughter’s career as a teller of stories. In fact she says ‘My Mother was in charge of language’ and, even if much of her language was from a rather hide-bound view of religion, there is a certain amount of vigour in all her pronouncements. I also finished this book feeling that, at the bottom of it all, Jeanette Winterson and her adopted mother did love each other. I guess the difficult relationship was part of making her the author she became – I wonder if she feels it was worth it in the end?