LIKE MOST PEOPLE I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.
Every year, I reach the month of May and students ask for final advice as they begin their exams.I always suggest they read their texts closely and get a good night’s sleep! I also remind them that our reading informs our writing and vice versa. So when they notice something effective, I tell students to be magpies and to adopt the good practice for their own writing. Here’s a wonderful example of the writing mantra, ‘show, don’t tell.’
At the beginning of her autobiographical novel, Oranges are not the only Fruit, Winterson shows the reader the character of her mother succinctly without needing to go into lots of detail. Notice how the reference to her mother’s fondness for wrestling acts as a (sustained) metaphor for her mother’s approach to life. And although the tone is witty and arch, we also suspect that her mother’s battling approach to the world, affected her parenting skills too and that there might be an underlying irony to the wrestling after all.
Look how Winterson uses the past tense, to show us that ‘ for a long time’ might suggest an experience endured, rather than enjoyed. and that the mother’s wrestling personality might have led to conflict and even alienation as the first persona narrator grows up. The mother’s intolerance of anyone who holds different attitudes to her own is relegated to the ‘enemies’ camp in the future.
The novel is narrated by the first-person narrator, past tense. So it is retrospective. Retrospect infers that the relationship might founder under the wrestling because of the mother’s near fanatical certainty: look at the reference to the ‘white corner’. Notice how the opening is structured around the metaphor of wrestling and the ‘white corner‘ continues the idea but also emphasises the mother’s self-righteousness. The mother sees herself as ‘morally right’ in all things, ‘that was that’ and this could lead to problems with her daughter.
The foreshadowing is subtle and yet is felt by the reader. We know that this relationship will run into conflict because of the absolute conviction of the mother. Polarisation gives little room for acceptance. Love is therefore conditional and prone to the issues of power.
Look also at the difference in gender roles. The mother wrestles, the father watches the wrestling. This contrast again sets up a challenging dynamic for the rest of the novel.
A superb opening. The rest of the novel is wonderful too.
Carol Ann Duffy 15 ideas!
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