Saturday, March 12, 2011

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

It's hard to believe that the same Jeanette Winterson who wrote The Stone Gods wrote this book. In many ways, it probably is not the same author.

This debut novel, winner of the Whitbread Prize for first fiction, came out more than a quarter-century ago. It is warm and witty, in turn savagely satirical and touchingly poignant. Gender politics have come a long way since Winterson wrote this autobiographical novel about the "unnatural passions" a young woman in Lancashire, but it is, in the age of the Christian right and DOMA in this country, startingly relevant for an American audience today.

The narrator, whose name happens to be Jeanette, is the adopted daughter of a couple fully engaged in the Pentecostal evangelical movement in England. It is her destiny, her adoptive mother tells her from an early age, to be a missionary, and she is trained accordingly, becoming a highly regarded and precocious preacher in her local church and on domestic missions. But Jeanette soon finds herself cherishing intimacy with her girlfriends, first Melanie, and then Katy. Her world is populated with the female couple that runs the vermin store -- the type of couple quietly acknowledge and shunned in small towns throughout the world, as in Pittsburg, where my father's aunt lived with her companion -- as well as various spinsters who eventually confess to Jeanette that they have the same kind of leanings.

For her mother and her pastor, Jeanette's early forays in forbidden love are proof of a demon at work in her, but even an exorcism fails to cure her and eventually banishment is the only solution. At that point, as with most adolescents, Jeanette is ready for the rupture. But this rejection is so much more hurtful than what most young adults experience, and her sense of loss is palpable. The older Jeanette, ensconced by the end of the novel in the city, misses the comfort of hearth and home and the belonging she felt in the church.

Having grown to be agnostic, she even misses the God of her youth.
I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don't think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don't even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it.
This is something I can relate to perhaps more than I'd like to acknowledge.

English provincial life is rendered with such comic finesse that it doesn't matter if some of the finer details are lost on an American reader. You care for Jeanette, and ultimately you care for her mother, as hard-hearted as she sometimes seems. When Jeanette goes home for Christmas at the end of the book, her mother has "gone electronic" and does her mission work via CB. The last words of the book are her putting on her earphones, and saying into the microphone: "This is Kindly Light calling Manchester, come in Manchester, this is Kindly Light."

Jeanette's plight moves the reader time and again, as when she hears her birth mother through the wall being sent away by her adoptive mother, or when she relishes the devotion of her dog, or mourns the passing of Elsie, an older woman who understood her.

The narrative is interspersed with fairy tales, myths, philosophical riffs that mirror Jeanette's interior life and add rich layers to the story. Perhaps the problem with The Stone Gods is that these somewhat extraneous bits dominate, whereas here they are firmly anchored in a very real narrative.

It is a book that at times makes you laugh out loud, or makes you stop and reflect about things. It is a coming of age narrative that takes you back to your own youth -- gay or straight has really nothing to do with it. It is a very rewarding novel.

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