I’ve read writers who write good paragraphs, and then writers who write paragraphs in sentences. Jeanette Winterson is the latter type. Take this example from her novel Gut Symmetries (which I haven’t read, but…)
Jeanette Winterson burst onto the literary scene when she was at the shiny, enviable age of 26. She’d left home 16 years earlier after coming out as a lesbian, and her life experiences are printed all over her first novel, Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit. The semi-autobiographical novel is about a girl’s journey out of a fervently religious Evangelical household in an English mill town through discovering and embracing her lesbian sexuality. Though of course she never quite makes it “out,” because we can never make it out of our families. But anyway. It’s a damn good book, and I’m sure Jeanette’s mother would get mad at me for saying “damn” but luckily for both of us, she’s not my mother.
Winterson’s narrator, also named Jeanette, looks back and writes about her childhood and her relationship with her mother. Jeanette was adopted as an infant by this mother, a woman who believes in stark binaries, to be groomed into becoming a pastor. All her life Jeanette is aware of her mother’s “calling” for her to join the church. But her destiny collides with her desires when Jeanette awakens to romance, to the Melanies and Katies of the world. It’s so interesting tracing the logic Jeanette uses to have love for women and church in her life, and when the icy realization that the community won’t let her do this begins to seep in.
Jeanette’s mother is kind of person who warrants an entire book being written about her, with enough idiosyncratic antics and wild beliefs that you stick with Jeanette to see how she navigates loving her mother and knowing she must leave her if she’s to survive. The title stems from one of the mother’s proclamations that oranges are the only fruit. But of course they’re not.
You’d think a book about a girl being shunned by her community/realizing her community is batshit would be bitter. But it’s not. It’s poignant, funny, and terribly kind to the people that she lost along the way.
Winterson sprinkles in some fantastical elements in Oranges in brief fairy-tale-esque sequences mythologizing Jeanette’s journey out. Her book The Passion (which I think is my favorite Winterson) takes this speculative fiction to a whole new level. It’s about a love affair between a Venetian thief and a soldier in Napoleon’s army. Mostly I was swept away because it has extremely delectable quotes on love in it, and there’s nothing I quite like like good love quotes. Great stuff like, “I say I’m in love with her. What does that mean? It means I review my future and my past in the light of this feeling. It is as though I wrote in a foreign language that I am suddenly able to read. Wordlessly, she explains me to myself. LIke genius she is ignorant of what she does.” JEEEEZ. I mean, really, the woman knows how to write about the human experience and the human heart in ways that ring bells of truth.
Yet I know I’m being self-indulgent by swooning over how good The Passion is because it’s just a book that I would very much like. Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit stuck with me for its sheer humanness. Knowing that it’s a true story certainly doesn’t make the reverberations any less strong.
It’s a comfort to know that I’ve only read two of her books, and there’s so much thought-provoking heartbreaking humanness to come.