Monthly Archives: February 2015

A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard (review)

Last year I read Knausgaard’s A Man in Love, the second volume in his six-book series, My Struggle, a set of novels that delve into various aspects of his own personal life. I had to jump straight in with book two as it made the IFFP longlist, a list I’d agreed to read for Stu’s Shadow project. Much to my surprise, I found A Man in Love very compelling, and while it didn’t seem to matter that I hadn’t started with book one, I’ve been meaning to plug the gap ever since. A Death in the Family is that first volume in the series, but it turned out to be a very different book to the one I’d expected.

The title A Death in the Family refers to the painful demise of Karl Ove’s father, a man who died before his time in horrific circumstances. At the time of writing this first volume, Karl Ove is forty and living in Sweden with his second wife, Linda, and their three children. He is struggling to balance the demands of family life alongside his burning desire to write something exceptional. For several years he has tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to write a novel about his father. Finally he finds a form that will suit, enabling him to tell it as it is: A Death in the Family is the result.


The book is divided into two very different parts. The first section begins with a short meditation on death: how as a society we tend to draw a veil over the whole subject; how dead bodies are hidden away and stored as close to the ground as possible. It’s as if there is ‘something deep within us that urges us to move death down to the earth whence we came.’ It’s a stark and powerful opening, one that drew me into the opening pages of the book, and I was all set for Karl Ove to disclose the story of his own father’s departure.

Before we get to the meat of the novel though, there’s some scene setting to cover. So for the remainder of the first section, Karl Ove looks back over his childhood and teenage years giving us a sense of the troubled nature of his relationship with his father. Here’s an early memory of suppertime in the Knausgaard household, a passage I found especially revealing and poignant – the plates and glasses are for Karl Ove and his elder brother, Yngve:

If mum was on the evening shift, dad did everything: when we came into the kitchen there were two glasses of milk and two plates, each with four slices of bread plus toppings, waiting for us. As a rule, he had prepared the food beforehand, and then kept it in the fridge, and the fact that it was cold made it difficult to swallow, even when I liked the toppings he had chosen. If mum was at home there was a selection, either hers of ours, of meats, cheeses, jars on the table and this small touch, which allowed us to choose what would be on the table or on our sandwiches, in addition to the bread being at room temperature, this was sufficient to engender a sense of freedom in us… (pg. 15, Vintage Books)

Suppers with mother are relaxed and happy affairs, the children helping to lay the table and chatting away about anything and everything. Karl Ove’s mother is interested in what the boys have to say and doesn’t mind if they make a bit of a mess at the table. By contrast, the boys seem fearful of their father, lowering their voices and sitting up ‘as stiff as pokers’ when he enters the kitchen. I would have liked to hear more about Karl Ove’s mother, but she is largely absent from the story either working or away from the family home for whatever reason.

These early fragments aside, I have to admit to disengaging from large chunks of the first part of this book, particularly the passages covering Karl Ove’s teenage years. During this time, Karl Ove and Yngve’s parent split up. We follow Karl Ove as he develops a love of indie music and proceeds to drift about like a typical teenager, all captured in the minutest of detail. There’s an extremely lengthy passage depicting Karl Ove’s movements and those of his friends one New Year’s Eve: their attempts to procure alcohol and to conceal it from their parents; their efforts to find a party as they mill around from one location to another. My recall of this passage is more than a little fuzzy as my mind was wandering at this point. If truth be told, I find the teenage Knausgaard far less interesting than his adult counterpart. I was waiting for the grip of the narrative to kick in, and it came once I started part two.

The second section focuses on the death of Karl Ove’s father, or more precisely, the aftermath and fallout from this event. At some point following the breakdown of his marriage, Karl Ove’s father moves back to the old family home to live with the boys’ grandmother. He turns to the bottle becoming highly dependent on alcohol to get by, and when Karl Ove hears of his father’s death, there’s a sense that it is not entirely unexpected.

Throughout his life, Karl Ove had tried to impress his father but without success, his efforts failing to gain the recognition he craved. At first he appears to feel very little for the loss of his father; it’s as if there is an absence of any response. But as he travels home to Norway, the emotions flood through his body. When Karl Ove sees his brother Yngve in the airport arrivals hall, the tears come:

He turned his head and met my gaze. I was about to smile, but at that moment my lips twisted, and with a pressure it was impossible to resist, the emotions from earlier rose again. They found vent in a sob, and I began to cry. Half-raised my arm to my face, took it back down, a new wave came, my face puckered once again. I will never forget the look on Yngve’s face. He watched me in disbelief. There was no judgement in it, it was more like him watching something he could not understand, and had not expected, and for which therefore he was completely unprepared. (pgs. 225-6)

I mentioned earlier that this book turned out to be very different to the one I’d expected. I simply wasn’t prepared for the intensity and horror of what Karl Ove and Yngve have to face when they arrive at the family home. Their father must have been living in abject squalor, drinking himself into the ground until death finally arrived. Here’s a tiny excerpt from the scene (it gets much, much worse than this):

Yngve stood in the hall surveying the scene. The blue wall-to-wall carpet was covered with dark stains and marks. The open built-in wardrobe was full of lose bottles and bags of them. Clothes had been tossed all over the place. More bottles, clothes hangers, shoes, unopened letters, advertising brochures and plastic bags were strewn across the floor.

But the worst was the stench.

What the hell could reek like that?

‘He’s destroyed everything,’ Yngve said, slowly shaking his head. (pgs. 255-6)

This second section of the novel is astonishing. It takes the brothers several days to systematically clear and clean each room in the house; the amount of filth and detritus they have to wade through is unlike anything I might have imagined. The writing is raw and candid, giving the narrative an unfiltered feel – nothing is spared. I found the scenes involving Karl Ove’s grandmother especially distressing: a woman quite possibly experiencing the early symptoms of dementia, wasting away to nothing and retreating into herself. She’s been living through it all, and it’s heart-breaking to read.

There is a sense that Knausgaard has written this book as a way of exorcising the ghost of his father. As the house clearance and funeral preparations continue, there are times when he is overcome with emotion, and the tears flow freely. We are left with the picture of a man trying to come to terms with a number of things, not only the death of his father but the misery and pain that has accumulated over many years.

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book – they include Stu, Tony Malone and Tony Messenger. Helen has written about the series.

A Death in the Family (tr. by Don Bartlett) is published in the UK by Vintage Books. Source: personal copy. Book 6/20 in my #TBR20.

The Front Seat Passenger by Pascal Garnier (review)

Last year I read so many good books that I struggled to find places for them all on my end-of-year list. One notable book that didn’t quite make the final cut was Pascal Garnier’s Moon in a Dead Eye. I’m a big fan of this French writer’s blend of surreal humour and sense of affinity for life’s outsiders and losers so I’ve been saving The Front Seat Passenger for a rainy day. Like the other Garnier novellas I’ve read, Passenger is a short, sharp slice of noir – ideal for a spare hour or two.


Passenger’s central character is a forty-year-old man, Fabien, who lives in Paris with his wife, Sylvie. At the beginning of the book, we are introduced to Fabien during a visit to his father’s home. Fabien’s mother, Charlotte, has just died, and the news has hit his father hard even though thirty-five years have slipped by since she walked out on them. Fabien’s father is the silent type – closed to the world, keeping everything inside. Fabien’s early life with his father had felt like ‘living underwater.’

As I read this novella, I couldn’t help thinking that these experiences must have played a formative role in shaping Fabien’s character. As you’ll see in a little while, he’s rather odd. This next quote captures a sense of his childhood:

Fabien was the child of two phantoms, with the absence of one and the silence of the other providing his only experience of family. They had each carved out their own isolated little existence, that was all. (pgs. 14-15, Gallic Books)

On his return to Paris, Fabien learns that Sylvie has been involved in a serious car accident – there is a message on his answerphone urging him to call the hospital in Dijon. But rather than contacting the hospital straightaway, Fabien’s immediate instinct is to ‘light a cigarette and go and smoke it naked by the open window’. He’s convinced that Sylvie is dead, but he doesn’t react as one might expect. There is an absence of emotion (or if it’s there, it’s all out of whack). Here’s his first thought:

Shit…I’m a widower now, a different person. What should I wear? (pg. 21)

It gets worse. Sylvie is dead, and Fabien comes out with a very strange response indeed when asked to identify his wife’s body. Forlani is the police inspector:

Forlani spoke to two men in short white coats. They glanced briefly at Fabien and pulled the handle of a sort of drawer. Sylvie slid out of the wall.

‘Is this your wife?’

‘Yes and no. It’s the first time I’ve seen her dead. I mean, the first time I’ve seen a dead body. It’s not at all like a living person.’ (pg 26)

The inspector informs Fabien that Sylvie did not die alone. She was with a married man who also died in the accident, a man whom the police believe was her lover. This information comes as news to Fabien – he knew his marriage had withered in recent years but he had no inkling of Sylvie’s involvement in any affair. Before leaving the morgue, Fabien deliberately creates a distraction, and while the inspector is out of sight, he makes a note of the dead man’s name and address. The man’s name was Martial Arnoult and he lived in Paris with his wife, Martine.

Fabien seems keen to close the door on his former life with Sylvie, so when his recently-divorced friend, Gilles, invites him to move in it’s a no-brainer. The two men sit around all day smoking weed and playing Lego with Gilles’ son. Three or four weeks slip by and Fabien seems well and truly over the loss of Sylvie. His thoughts have turned to Martine Arnoult, the woman who was married to Sylvie’s lover. The following passage appears at the end of chapter, and it hints at a sense of foreboding, something sinister to come:

When he forced himself to think about Sylvie, like an invalid testing the progress of their convalescence, he felt as if he were looking back at someone else’s memories. Perhaps that was what was meant by ‘turning the page’. The blank whiteness of the new page gave him vertigo. So he began to darken the page by writing: ’Martine Arnoult, 45 Rue Charlot, Paris 3rd.’ (pgs. 44-45)

Fabien decides to keep watch over Martine. He sets out to stalk her, to insert himself into her life in some way, but she remains under the ever-watchful eye of her constant companion and ‘bodyguard’, Madeleine. It isn’t entirely clear why Fabien is following Martine. Revenge appears the most likely motive at first, but then again, perhaps it’s a desire to discover the ‘real’ Martine. She seems so devoid of life and colour ‘like an over- exposed photo’. There must be more to her, some hidden depth to her character:

He hadn’t been able to find out much about Martine, except that she smoked Winston Ultra Lights, was always willing to go where Madeleine wanted her to, had no taste in either clothes or food; in short, that she floated in life like a foetus in formaldehyde. But it was precisely that troubling vacuity that drove Fabien to fixate on her even more. No one could be that insipid; she must have a secret, a hidden source of interest. And why was Madeleine fussing round her like a mother hen with a chick? (pg. 49)

In an effort to get close to Martine and isolate her from the overbearing Madeleine, Fabien follows the pair on holiday to Majorca where he finally gets the opportunity he’s been waiting for. To say any more about the plot would only spoil the surprises to come (and there are quite a few). One of the things I like about this novella (and Garnier in general) is the unpredictability – he’s a writer that keeps his readers guessing. Just when you think you’ve got the denouement all figured out, along comes another twist or turn to add to the meltdown that has gone before.

The Front Seat Passenger is a solid noir. The set-up is very strong, and the ending has that element of craziness that characterises Garnier’s work. There’s the usual darkness, the mordant humour I’ve come to expect from this author. The prose is clean and tight. While I enjoyed Passenger, it does perhaps lack a little of the compassion I’ve noticed in some of his other books. Moon in a Dead Eye and How’s the Pain? remain my favourites of the Garnier novellas I’ve read so far.

Emma (at Book Around the Corner), Guy (at His Futile Preoccupations), Caroline (at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and MarinaSofia (at Crime Fiction Lover) have also reviewed this novella. In her review, Emma mentions that in France, the book is published under the title La Place du Mort: ‘the deadman’s place/seat’. In France, it is common to refer to the passenger seat as la place du mort. Sitting here as opposed to the driver’s seat comes with a higher risk of death if the car is involved in an accident. The phrase has another meaning: to take the place of a dead man. Both are worth keeping in mind.

The Front Seat Passenger (tr. by Jane Aitken) is published in the UK by Gallic Books. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

In the Twilight by Anton Chekhov (tr. Hugh Aplin)

In the Twilight, a collection of sixteen short stories compiled by Chekhov himself, was first published in Russian in 1887. The collection was a major critical and personal success for Chekhov as it marked his transition from the comic sketch writer of his early years to the acclaimed author of impressive short stories. This new edition of In the Twilight (published in the UK by Alma Classics) presents all sixteen stories from the original collection in a fresh translation by Hugh Aplin. This beautiful edition also contains a short introduction and a biography of key events in Chekhov’s life.


As with other short story collections I’ve covered here, I’m not going to try to review each tale in turn but to give a sense of the themes and a little of what I thought of this collection as a whole. Many of these stories are set at least in part in the twilight hours or at night, but the title In the Twilight also offers an indication of the tone of this collection. Several of these stories convey a sense of sadness, a melancholy tone, scenes of darkness alongside the light as individuals’ lives turn on the tiniest of moments.

In Verochka, one of my favourites from the collection, Vera, a twenty-one-year-old country girl, declares her love for Ivan Ognev, a rather naïve statistician who has been visiting her father on business. When Ognev leaves the country to return to the city, Vera accompanies him to the outskirts of her village where she makes her feelings clear. It’s a story of missed chances, pain and regret as Ognev struggles to respond to Vera’s advances:

“And what if we meet in ten years or so?” he said. “What will we be like then? You’ll already be the venerable mother of a family, and I the author of some venerable collection of statistics that no one needs, the thickness of forty thousand such collections. We’ll meet and remember old times…Now we can feel the present, it fills us and excites us, but then, when we meet, we’ll no longer remember the date, the month, even the year when we last saw each other on this little bridge. Quite likely you’ll have changed…Listen, are you going to change?” (pg. 60, Alma Classics)

The theme of opportunities, of chances there for the taking, is also present in On the Road, one of Chekhov’s classic stories. A man and woman meet in the travelling room at a wayside inn when they are both forced to take shelter from a snowstorm. During the night, they tell each other of the troubles in their lives and the possibility of a deeper relationship hangs in the air. When they come to part in the morning, the woman seems hesitant – it’s a scene charged with emotion:

Ilovaiskaya was silent. When the sleigh had moved off and begun to skirt a large snowdrift, she turned to look back at Likharyov with an expression that suggested she wanted to say something to him. He ran over to her, yet she said not a word to him, but only glanced at him through long eyelashes on which hung flakes of snow… (pg. 104)

In other stories, we appear to join the main characters mid-scene which has the effect of hooking the reader into the story from the opening paragraphs. Here’s a passage from the first page of Misfortune which tells of a game of love between a young married woman, Sofya Petrovna, and her attractive, well-educated pursuer, Ivan Mikhailovich:

“I didn’t expect to meet you here,” Sofya Petrovna was saying, looking at the ground and touching last year’s leaves with the tip of her parasol, “but now I’m glad that I have. I need to have a serious and definitive talk with you. Please, Ivan Mikhailovich, if you really do love and respect me, then stop your pursuit! You follow me like a shadow, you’re forever looking at me with no good in your eyes, you declare your love, write strange letters and…and I don’t know when it’s all going to end!…” (pg. 105)

After she informs Ivan that their relationship must end, Sofya is torn between a sense of duty to her husband and feelings of attraction towards her lover. It’s one of the most interesting stories in the collection, especially as it explores the emotional dynamics at play.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chekhov’s stories are very atmospheric with snowy landscapes and howling winds featuring heavily in many of these tales:

The snowdrifts were covered with a thin, icy crust; tears trembled on them and on the trees, and spilling down the roads and paths was a dark slush made up of mud and melting snow. In short, there was a thaw on the earth, but the sky could not see it through the dark night and, for all it was worth, was sprinkling flakes of new snow onto the melting earth. And the wind was wandering like a drunkard…It would not allow the snow to settle on the earth and was spinning it around in the darkness as it liked… (p. 39)

Further, the dusky light and night-time settings often add to the mood. In A Bad Business, for instance, a night watchman on patrol in a graveyard encounters a wandering pilgrim. The wanderer claims to be lost, but this is an unsettling little story, and things are not quite as they appear at first sight.

In other stories we encounter a variety of seemingly ordinary people going about lives: two policeman escorting a tramp to the District town; a Public Prosecutor searching for a way to dissuade his young son from smoking; two children delighted by the arrival of a litter of kittens…there are many more.

All in all, In the Twilight is a fascinating collection of stories and an excellent introduction to Chekhov’s writing. Several of these stories finish at just the right point leaving the reader to imagine or guess what might happen next – that’s not a bad thing, to leave your audience wanting a little more.

Karen at Kaggsy’s Booking Ramblings has also reviewed this collection.

In the Twilight is published in the UK by Alma Classics. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

How to be both by Ali Smith (review)

I bought Ali Smith’s latest novel, How to be both, back at the end of September with a view to reading it at Christmas. Time got the better of me over the holidays, but in a way I’m glad I had it for the dark days in January as it turned out to be a delight from start to finish.

How to be both, is divided into two parts, both titled ‘one’. The overall narrative consists of two interconnected stories: in one, we encounter a sixteen-year-old girl named George whose mother has recently died; in the other, we meet Francescho, a figure based on a real-life 15th-century Italian renaissance artist, Francesco del Cossa. The book has been published in such a way that brings an element of chance to the reading experience. Half the copies of How to be both have been printed with George’s section of the narrative first followed by Francescho’s, while in the remaining 50% of copies the order is reversed.


In my version of the novel, the narrative starts with George’s story. We join her on New Year’s Eve a few months after her mother’s sudden death from an acute allergic reaction. George lives with her father and younger brother, Henry, and it’s clear that each member of the family is finding it difficult to come to terms with their loss.

One of the things I like about Ali Smith is her ability to create young characters that are interesting and believable. George is no exception; she is smart, inquisitive, a stickler for grammar and thoroughly likeable with it. Through George, Smith perfectly captures the sense of loss and absence that follows the death of a parent. When a loved one dies they remain alive in our thoughts blurring the boundary between life and death. Consequently, George has to keep reminding herself that her mother is dead: ‘But I’m not, her mother says. Said. That was then. This is now […] Her mother’s now not anything.’

George’s story is full of memories of her mother, and central to this section is the account of a trip the pair take to Italy to see a piece of artwork in its natural state. This visit, prompted by a photo George’s mother has seen in an art magazine, forms the main link with the other section of Smith’s novel as the artwork in question is one of Francescho’s frescos.

Here’s George with her mother as they view the frescos in a Palazzo in Ferrara. The frescos are teeming with life, like ‘a giant comic strip’:

There are unicorns pulling a chariot here and lovers kissing there, and people with musical instruments here, people working up trees and in fields there. There are cherubs and garlands, crowds of people, women working at what looks like a loom up there, and down here there are eyes looking out of a black archway while people talk and do business and don’t notice the looking. (pg. 50, Hamish Hamilton)

That’s just a small extract from the wonderful description of these frescos.

As the weeks pass, George finds some comfort in the form of friendship with Helena, a girl from school who shares her budding interest in art as a form of expression. When tasked with a school assignment on empathy and sympathy, the two girls decide to capture it through the voice of Francesco del Cossa, the painter of the frescos George’s mother loved so much. It is entirely possible that the other section of the book, Francescho’s story, is a figment of George and Helena’s imagination. Nothing is clear though and Smith leaves this open to the interpretation of the reader.

As George’s section draws to a close, there are signs of hope. She begins to imagine a future, a vision of a summer where she finds her father happily going about his business instead of resorting to drink. In addition, there’s an intriguing link to del Cossa which acts as an introduction to the other half of the book.

Francescho’s story comes in the form of a first-person narrative, a voice I found utterly engaging from the start. Early in this section, we learn that Francescho is in fact female. When her father recognises young Francescho’s talent for drawing, he encourages her to adopt a male identity thereby enabling her to fulfil her desire to work as an artist.

During this half of the novel, we follow Francescho’s progress as she develops her trade. In time, she is appointed to paint three sections of fresco in a certain Palazzo, the one visited many years later by George and her mother. There is a playful, subversive note to Francescho’s art as she incorporates the faces of her family members and much-loved friends into these frescos. Furthermore, she cannot resist the occasional spot of political satire, an activity that provides another link to George’s story – before her death, George’s mother was an early pioneer of the Subvert movement, an underground group that used art as a form of political activism.

In an intriguing development to Francescho’s narrative, it would appear that her spirit has been sent to observe George in the present day, and these passages are threaded through the story of Francescho’s own life in 15th-century Italy. This might sound confusing and tricksy, but far from it. It all comes together beautifully.

As one might expect, Francescho finds certain aspects of 21st-century life rather baffling. That said, her observations are rather astute. Can you tell what she’s thinking about here?

…cause this place is full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some of the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head, dedicated to saints perhaps or holy folk, and they look or talk or pray to these tablets or icons all the while by holding them next to their heads or stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons. (pgs. 229-230)

At first Francescho mistakes George for a boy and this play on gender provides another link between the two parts of this novel. Irrespective of her initial mistake, Francescho clearly senses that George is grieving for the loss of a loved one:

This boy I am sent for some reason to shadow knows a door he can’t pass through and what it tells me just to be near him is something akin to when you find the husk of a ladybird that has been trapped, killed and eaten by a spider, and what you thought on first sight was a charming thing, a colourful creature of the world going about its ways, is in reality a husk hollowed out and proof of the brutal leavings of life. (pg. 229)

If it’s not clear by now then I should say that I liked this book very much. Like its protagonists, it’s clever, brimming with ideas and yet it’s easy to engage with too. The writing is wonderful and Smith conveys much warmth and affection for these characters. I thoroughly enjoyed both parts, but I found Francescho’s voice especially captivating – her character comes with a language and syntax all of her own.

With a title like How to be both, it’s probably no surprise that duality is at the heart of this novel, and Smith uses this theme to create multiple connections between the two parts. I’ve already touched on the links between life and death and questions of gender, but there are other examples too. The frescos act as a metaphor for the story we can see on the surface and what might be revealed if we endeavour to dig a little deeper and look underneath. At various points the stories touch on the act of observation and surveillance: the observer and the observed; the act of seeing and being seen.

Finally, Smith’s love of art is plainly evident and the novel has something to say on our responses to art, how the form can evoke certain feelings and enrich our lives in various ways. I’ll finish with a quote on this theme as George considers one of Del Cossa’s paintings in a London art gallery:

Today what she sees is the way the rockscape on one side of the saint is broken, rubbly, as if not yet developed, and on the other side has transformed into buildings that are rather grand and fancy.

It is as if just passing from one side of the saint to the other will result if you go one way in wholeness and if you go the other in brokenness.

Both states are beautiful. (pg. 158)

Several other bloggers have reviewed this book including bookemstevo, Eric at Lonesome ReaderGemma at The Perfectionist Pen and anakatony at Tony’s Book World.

Francesco del Cossa’s frescos can be viewed in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy.

How to be both is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books. Source: personal copy. Book 8/20 in my #TBR20.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (book review)

In 1984, Jeanette Winterson wrote Oranges are not the Only Fruit, a semi-autobiographical novel in which she draws on elements from her own life; she was twenty-four at the time. I recall watching the 1990 TV adaptation with my mother – it screened shortly before she died – but it’s taken me far too long to get around to the book.


Oranges is narrated by Jeanette, a young girl living in a working-class family in the North of England. As the novel opens, we begin to get a sense of Jeanette’s world and the dominant role her adoptive mother plays in her life – there is a father, but he’s largely absent from the story. In the eyes of Jeanette’s mother, everything is either black or white, either good or evil. There are no shades of grey:

She had never heard of mixed feelings. There were friends and there were enemies (pg. 3, Vintage)

Jeanette’s mother is heavily involved, obsessed even, with the local Pentecostal church and is grooming young Jeanette for a future as a church missionary. The novel contains some brilliant observations on the mother’s determination to take every opportunity to do the Lord’s work, converting the heathen in the ‘Great Struggle between good and evil’, and how family life revolves around this quest:

We had a lot of Bible quizzes at church and my mother like me to win. If I knew the answer she asked me another, if I didn’t she got cross, but luckily not for long, because we had to listen to the World Service. It was always the same; we sat down on either side of the radiogram, she with her tea, me with a pad and pencil; in front of us, the Missionary Map. The faraway voice in the middle of the set gave news of activities, converts and problems. At the end there was an appeal for YOUR PRAYERS. I had to write it all down so that my mother could deliver her church report that night. She was the Missionary Secretary. The Missionary Report was a great trial to me because our mid-day meal depended on it. If it went well, no deaths and lots of converts, my mother cooked a joint. If the Godless had proved not only stubborn, but murderous, my mother spent the rest of the morning listening to the Jim Reeves Devotional Selection and we had to have boiled eggs and toast soldiers. (pg. 5)

At the beginning of the novel, Jeanette is aged seven, and not attending school as her mother considers it a ‘Breeding Ground’ – Jeanette doesn’t understand what this means, but she knows it sounds bad.

It’s not long though before the authorities are on to Jeanette’s mother, and our narrator is plunged into an unfamiliar environment, one that exposes the differences between Jeanette’s home life and the lives of her classmates. There’s a particularly painful scene where Jeanette is desperate to impress her teacher and class with her ‘What I Did in my Summer Holidays’ essay. The other kids’ essays are all the same – full of fishing trips, swimming and picnics – so Jeanette’s story of the church camp trip to Colwyn Bay cannot fail to impress, surely? But as Jeanette reads her essay aloud, her tale of preaching on the beach and the ‘Healing of the Sick crusade’ is greeted with silence, then giggles and a swift curtailment of events by her teacher. The young girl is puzzled; she knows something is going on, but doesn’t understand the reason for her classmates’ and teacher’s reactions.

A few weeks slip by, events at school continue in a similar vein. When the children are asked to design samplers in sewing class, most opt for birthday motifs or dedications to their mother: ‘TO MOTHER WITH LOVE.’ Jeanette, on the other hand, wants her design to reflect the prophets, something from Jeremiah: ‘THE SUMMER IS ENDED AND WE ARE NOT YET SAVED.’ And in black thread to boot.

Jeanette’s behaviour begins to affect her classmates, and a couple of the other mothers descend upon the school:

I did upset the children. Not intentionally, but effectively. Mrs Sparrow and Mrs Spencer came to school one day all fluffed up with rage; they came at playtime. I saw them with their handbags and hats, revolving up the concrete, lips pursed. Mrs Spencer had her gloves on. (pg. 39)

I love that quote, and it shows how effectively Winterson captures an image and mood in just a few lines. It’s all handbags-at-dawn, and small details such as Mrs Spencers’ gloves really add something to the scene.

Mrs Vole, the headmistress, tackles Jeanette about her preoccupation with God, accusing her of ‘talking about Hell to young minds.’

It was true. I couldn’t deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident, and I gave her all my cough sweets afterwards. (pg. 42)

But when Mrs Vole writes to Jeanette’s mother asking her to moderate the young girl, the mother is not in the least concerned. If anything, mother considers it a victory:

Mrs Vole kept her promise. She wrote to my mother, explaining my religious leanings, and asking my mother if she would moderate me. My mother hooted and took me to the cinema as a treat. They were showing The Ten Commandments […]

After that day, everyone at school avoided me. If it had not been for the conviction that I was right, I might have been very sad. As it was I just forgot about it, did my lessons as best I could, which wasn’t that well, and thought about our church. I told my mother how things were once.

‘We are called to be apart,’ she said. (pg 42)

The situation leaves Jeanette feeling exposed and lonely at school, and as the years pass she takes comfort in a couple of friendships. She develops a bond with Elsie Norris, a kind lady and fellow member of the church who keeps an eye out for Jeanette and plays with her when the young girl’s mother is absent or absorbed in the church. And then Jeanette meets Melanie, a girl who works on the local fish stall, and she realises her feelings for Melanie run deep:

She stroked my head for a long time, and then we hugged and it felt like drowning. Then I was frightened but couldn’t stop. There was something crawling in my belly. I had an octopus inside me. (pg. 86)

When Jeanette decides to confide in her mother by revealing her feelings for Melanie, she is surprised by her mother’s initial reaction – the woman nods, appears calm and seems to have understood the situation. But what follows is painful and terrifying for Jeanette as she is exposed to the full wrath of the church, an institution that considers the girls’ relationship an example of ‘unnatual passions.’

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit is a story with a number of themes. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age novel, the story of a young girl trying to find her place in a world when she seems ‘different’ to many of her peers – different in terms of her religious upbringing and to some extent her sexuality, too. But the novel also explores how difficult it is for Jeanette to live up to the expectations of her mother, especially when these expectations are so extreme. How can she when her mother thinks the following?

It all seemed to hinge around the fact that I loved the wrong sort of people. Right sort of people in every respect except this one; romantic love for another woman was a sin. (pg. 125)

I absolutely loved Oranges; it’s so well written, absorbing and full of slightly wry humour, too. For some reason, I was expecting it to be quite bitter, full of anger and rage, but it isn’t at all. Winterson writes with a great deal compassion and humanity. I hadn’t expected it to be quite so funny, so much so that it had me laughing out loud on a few occasions. I’ll finish with an extract from one those moments, Pastor Finch and his demon bus:

The first time that Melanie came to our church was not a success. I’d forgotten that Pastor Finch was visiting on his regional tour. He arrived in an old Bedford van with the terrified damned painted on one side and the heavenly host printed on the other. On the back doors and front bonnet he’d inscribed in green lettering, HEAVEN OR HELL? IT’S YOUR CHOICE. He was very proud of the bus, and told of the many miracles worked inside and out. Inside had six seats, so that the choir could travel with him, leaving enough room for musical instruments and a large first-aid kit in case the demon combusted somebody.

‘What do you do about the flames?’ we asked.

‘I use an extinguisher,’ he explained.

We were very impressed. (pgs. 81-82)

It was Max’s review that prompted me to read Oranges, book 5/20 in my #TBR20.

Oranges are not the Only Fruit is published in the UK by Vintage. Source: personal copy.