Review of Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson 

Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

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Book Review of Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson 

Charmed by Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Sexing the Cherry and The Passion, I’ve not bothered with Jeanette Winterson‘s fiction (or her non-fiction Art Objects and Art and Lies) for a number of years. Lighthousekeeping was released with Wintersion showing some humility and contrition for the awful “dark decade” of the 90s (“About 1992 I should have had an operation to sew up my mouth, and kept it closed till 1997,” see her Guardian interview) and a sense of her looking forward.

She seems to have come back into favour and Lighthousekeeping a “slim but lovely Winterson classic” is, on my reckoning, at least a partial return to form.

Lighthousekeeping reads like a document of intent: it is descriptive of story telling: it tells stories about telling stories whilst telling its stories: it suggests that telling stories (including the story that it is iself) is a way to exorcise the past and open a way into talking about the future by living now. And living now is – has to be – an expression of love (incuding, crucially, self-love) and love is our ongoing story. And these are regular Winterson themes investigated, particularly, in The Passion.

Pew is a blind lighthousekeeper who tells stories of the Pews who have always lived in the lighthouse at Cape Wrath in Salts. He tells them to Silver, an orphan, who, with nowhere to live, is apprenticed to Pew by the formidable Miss Pinch. He tells stories about Babel Dark who appointed (the first?) Pew and who was the inspiration, it would seem, for Stevenson’s (himself a lighthouse designer) Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Dark’s split personality arises from – indeed is – his love affair.

Safely married in Cape Wrath and working as the community’s vicar, Dark has another life in Bristol with his true love. He hates who he is – husband, cleric, upright citiizen – and feels that his true self (only allowed out on twice yearly visits to Bristol) is the lover, the betrayer – an inversion of Stevenson, with the real self being judged by society “the monster”.

Love, then, is dangerous stuff. And it is about this dangerous stuff that Winterson has always written – and sometimes written exceptionally well and quite exquisitely. And she does so here, occassionally, once again.

But only occassionally: sometimes Winterson’s touch is wonderfully light and one remembers what a lambent, life-affirming writer she can be; sometimes it is quite leaden. The novel moves between the mawkish, the banal and the cliched and the beautiful, incisive and wise. And it moves between and across these elements throughout this clumsily uneven work. Overall I was compelled: sometimes Winterson’s simplicity is refreshing and perfectly judged, but it regularly has a self-help banality.

Visited by Stevenson, Dark is a compelling character. It would have been gratifying to have his story more fully fleshed out. When Charles Darwin arrives to study a cave full of fossils (one of which, a sea horse, Dark keeps as a totem) that Dark has come upon, we are introduced to another of the book’s themes.

Love is a revolution but life, which must both contain it and be informed by it (and, ultimately, be it) is an evolution. Stories, memories, are told because life leaches, leaks, recedes: love keeps the boat afloat; stories are what we tell on the journey.

The shape of the novel is rather ragged. As a work it feels rushed. Silver, for much of the book a child, suddenly moves on in her life becoming a thief and a traveller. After the lighthouse is closed, and she must get on in life, we get two or three chapters – one of which about a library book is particularly badly written – before her final return to the lighthouse, as if there were enough to round-off her life.

Winterson may be interested in stories, but she most certainly is not interested in characters or characterisation. Much of this is hurried and way below par. But Winterson pulls it back with the resolution of the book when Silver (or is it now Winterson herself?) addresses the reader directly (we’ve seen this too before, of course).

One wonders, here, whether the “I lovel you” Silver utters, as every writer is their own first reader, is a statement to the mirror, a self-validating and empowering sentence addressed principally to Winterson herself. Lighthousekeeping reads like a novel Winterson had to write that will enable her, now, to go on telling stories and to go on writing.

This should be welcomed. Notwithstanding the self-indulgent aspects of this book, forgetting the absurd statements of past years about her own talents, glossing over her essentialist views on art, Winterson is a literary writer fascinated by literature and art and committed to what it can and should do, committed to writing books, as literature, that can change lives.

I would certainly recommend Lighthousekeeping. Winterson is an infuriating writer, this is not her at her best, but she is a singular talent and a fascinating one. Too few modern writers have her passion and too few seem to want to write as unashamedly and poetically about love as she does.

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