ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT By Jeanette Winterson Atlantic Monthly Press. 176 pp. Paperback, $6.95

"Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit," which was awarded the Whitbread Prize in England for best first fiction, is a strikingly quirky, delicate and intricate work. Jeanette (the heroine, teasingly named for her creator) contrasts history, which she sees as a mummification of a dead past, with stories, which are "a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained ... a way of keeping it all alive."

Jeanette is here telling us her story, a story of a quest for an impossible love -- the kind only God can bestow -- and of betrayal, which in lesser loves is perhaps inevitable.

Jeanette's mother, a firm believer in an English charismatic sect, has given her daughter a stern lesson concerning the precariousness of love. Having once discovered that what she thought was the fizziness of passion was merely a stomach ulcer, she warns, "Just you take care, what you think is the heart might well be another organ." But from her old friend and protector, Testifying Elsie, Jeanette had learned another lesson: " 'There's this world,' she banged the wall graphically, 'and there's this world,' she thumped her chest. 'If you want to make sense of either, you have to take notice of both.' " Unfortunately for Jeanette, the conflict between the two worlds will be irreconcilable, and she must choose the heart alone.

Jeanette's mother is always busy with the Lord, praying or tending the finances and development of the Society for the Lost (she offers members gifts such as a wipe-clean copy of Revelations). She is raising Jeanette, her adopted daughter, to be a missionary, and her faith is such that she mistakes a bout of deafness in the girl for a state of spiritual rapture.

In time, Jeanette becomes a successful preacher in the sect. Having induced a friend, Melanie, to find the Lord, the two become very close; in fact, they innocently become lovers. They do not understand that what is so natural to them is an "unnatural passion" to others, until the point is forcibly driven home in church, where they are publicly unmasked and then separated. Melanie is sent away, and Jeanette is subjected to an exorcism to rid her of her demons.

Ultimately, despite her abiding love for the church of God, Jeanette must leave the sect and her mother, whose rejection of her sexuality she experiences as a betrayal. Heading for the big city, where she believes she can leave the past behind, she learns what we all learn when we try to run away: "If the demons lie within they travel with you."

Jeanette finds herself in a kind of limbo, unable to escape and unable to go home again. And yet the return home is inevitable -- "There are threads that help you find your way back, and there are threads that intend to bring you back," she writes, and return she does after a couple of years, to find, if not forgiveness, at least acceptance.

Jeanette fashions her story into sections corresponding to the archetypal story, the one she learned to read from -- the Bible. "Genesis" is her earliest childhood, "Exodus" her going off to school, "Joshua" when her passion is uncovered and the walls surrounding her fall.

Jeanette tells other stories as well, myths and fairy tales about quests and loss, about journeying and longing to return home, tales that mirror Jeanette's own. Winterson has mastered both comedy and tragedy in this rich little novel, and she has put familiar themes -- the conflict between faith and the world, the prodigal daughter -- in an original framework. We have become cynical about evangelical groups in this country, and Winterson's great gift is evident in her ability to make us feel a warm humor in the holy, and a sympathy for Jeanette's sense of loss, rather than liberation, over her expulsion from the Camelot that condemned her.

The reviewer is an editor of Vanity Fair magazine