10 February 2008

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

There's something strange about reading books by writers who have a very particular style. I really like Winterson's writing, but it almost becomes cliche after awhile. The first book of hers I read, Written on the Body, blew me away, and I still think it's the best of her books. Because the thing is, you sort of have the feeling that once you've read one, you've read them all. I still enjoy reading something of hers from time to time, but I often come away feeling mildly disappointed.

What's great about her books is the curious blend of naivete and cynicism, matched by a keen intelligence for language. She's fond of clever, overarching statements like "What constitutes a problem is not the thing, or the environment where we find the thing, but the conjunction of the two; something unexpected in a usual place (our favourite aunt in our favourite poker parlor) or something usual in an unexpected place (our favourite poker in our favourite aunt)." It's charming, but it can get old. Another beloved technique of hers is re-telling fairy tales or legends from a rooted individual perspective, thus capitalizing on their mythic powers while using them to make a point. Again, lovely at first, but it can get somewhat grating, especially when they always seem to come back to the same wounded feminist moral.

This book, which I take it is highly autobiographical, starts out strong but fizzles as it progresses. It begins with the life of a precocious young girl in a community of religious fundamentalists, and is quirky and lovable. But then it gets increasingly bitter as the girl discovers her lesbian tendencies and is cast out by her family. The problem, I think, is that the material hits too close to home for Winterson, and she's unable to maintain a narrative distance. She also seems rather unwilling to really delve into the plot, and increasingly turns to allegorical fairy tale anecdotes to convey the plot, which begins to feel like she's avoiding the story rather than developing it. Time quickens and suddenly months and even years are flying by as she seems unable to finish the story, not really knowing where it's going, until at the very end she sort of lamely reflects on what seems to be a visit home for Christmas.

It's not a bad book, but it's definitely a first attempt, a writer still trying to really get a handle on things. Her later works are more mature and self-assured, and thus, more finely crafted.

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