Lighthousekeeping (2004) – Jeanette WINTERSON

After the giant book that was Independent People, I needed something a bit lighter and shorter to read. Coincidentally, I’ve also just discovered an excellent second-hand bookshop near where I live, and have spent some time there recently perusing their excellent shelved for things that I’ve been looking for. And some I haven’t. I’ve read Winterson’s latest novel, The Stone Gods, as well as Sexing the Cherry, and figured I should give this one a go.

Silver is an orphan. When her mother dies, she is taken to the local lighthouse, where she becomes the charge of the blind man who runs it, Pew. She starts to train to be a lighthousekeeper, but this doesn’t involve looking after lights or machinery – it is her job to learn and remember the stories Pew tells her about this history of the lighthouse and the people who have been fascinated by it over the centuries. She is drawn into the story of Babel Dark, a man whose double life begins to slowly implode around him.

I think there’s a finite amount of this kind of writing I can take. Winterson’s style is no doubt some of the most beautiful language currently out there, but it does have a habit of getting in the way of, you know, actual plot and characters. Fortunately, the novel is not particularly long, but I did tend to drift in and out of concentration when the language overpowered the other parts of the novel. It actually makes reading this kind of novel difficult – Winterson has a habit of being a bit schizophrenic when it comes to plot, so there are about three stories going on at once, and there’s no warning when you shift in and out of each one – and where each of these sections fit in to the other sections. Once you get used to it, each of the stories is quite simple, and easy to follow, but there are a few moments of confusion.

Perhaps the whole point of the novel is not to create a coherent and simple plot, then. Lighthousekeeping is about stories, about telling stories, about remembering history. For these characters, particularly Pew and Silver, it’s not about historical accuracy, but about what they remember – and if they can’t, they make it up. The stories they tell are so often about love and loss, about people who cannot get what they want, and strange tales of the bizarre. I did enjoy the whole Babel Dark saga – and I love that the constant references to Robert Louis Stevenson were paid off by the whole Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy that Dark suffers from. For him, though, his real life is the one in which he suffers, while he is free and alive with his mistress. Winterson does make references to many other tales of lost love – including Tristan and Isolde, and countless others – so I guess that’s what the book’s about. Loss. This ties into the main narrative which, for a long time, I assumed was set in the past. When, however, Silver goes to her local library, complete with computers and technology, I was a little put off. This novel really is a meditaiton on storytelling, on history, and of the things that we have lost because of rapid modernisation.

This wisful look at our versions of history would perhaps have been best served as either a short story, or a really big, thick novel. As Lighthousekeeping stands, it’s neither, and I think it suffers because of that. There are two very interesting stories here, though neither of them hvae enough time to really embed in the narrative, and both lose out. I would have loved an entire story about Babel Dark, as I don’t think Silver’s story is enough to carry the whole thing. Also, From reading Winterson’s other novels, it seems like she has one trick, and just keeps repeating it – slightly whimsical stories about weird people with weird names. She does it better in other novels than this one.

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2 thoughts on “Lighthousekeeping (2004) – Jeanette WINTERSON

  1. Sarah says:

    I’ve only read Sexing the Cherry by Winterson, and enjoyed it but with reservations. I have Lighthousekeeping in my TBR pile, but as like yourself I think a little of this kind f writing goes a long way and haven’t got to it yet.

  2. Jo says:

    I haven’t read this but you mentioned names. I’ve just read Winterson’s young adult novel Tanglewreck about an orphan called Silver searching for the Timekeeper before a man called Abel Darkwater gets it! Sound familiar? I’m going to have to look for ths book just to have a look!

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