No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, August 17, 2006

#77: Lighthousekeeping Jeanette Winterson

Every time I read a novel by Jeanette Winterson, I resolve to read more. Yet her prose is rich, and poetic, and addictive, and infectious: so it's probably a good thing that I read plenty of other books as well.

Lighthousekeeping is the narration of Silver ('part precious metal, part pirate') who, orphaned, is taken in (with her dog, DogJim) by Pew, keeper of the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Pew tells Silver stories, and tells her about story-telling: there's no such thing as an ending; all stories are worth hearing, but some aren't worth telling; the lighthouse as a metaphor for stories, for narrative, for the oral tradition. A lighthouse is 'a known point in the darkness'.

Every light had a story -- no, every light was a story, and the flashes themselves were the stories going out over the waves, as markers and guides and comforts and warnings. (p.41)

Silver is a likeable protagonist, young and confused and not ashamed to admit to her crimes. She steals a book: she steals a bird. She falls in love (and I'm not sure her lover's gender is ever explicitly stated: the sex scenes are tasteful to the point of vagueness). She learns to tell her own story: "Don't wait. Don't tell the story later."

In the tale of the nineteenth-century clergyman Babel Dark (alias Mr Lux) and his wife 'Mrs Tenebris', she discovers the consequences of not telling the story. That 'light and dark' dichotomy is echoed in references to Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, and to Stevenson himself: there are borrowings aplenty from Stevenson's best-known work, Treasure Island. Tristan and Isolde, doomed lovers, become part of the story: Darwin, with his ideas about evolution and the ape inside man, pays a visit to Pew at the lighthouse. ("There has always been a Pew at Cape Wrath. But not the same one?" That question-mark does so much!)

Winterson's prose really draws me in. I want to quote something from every page -- "tripping over slabs of sunlight the size of towns", "Suppose the unpredictable wave was God?", "In the fossil record of my past there is evidence that the heart has been removed more than once. The patient survived." This is a novel that I couldn't put down, simply because that would mean losing the flow and the rhythm and the dark, maritime, claustrophobic sense of the lighthouse. (It's not a long book: as Winterson has Silver say, "a long story. But a very short book".) Her metaphors are often original, almost always thought-provoking, sometimes achingly familiar as though she's put into words an association I've never dragged far enough into my conscious mind to codify: the 'that's it, that's it exactly' moments.

Every time I read a novel by Jeanette Winterson, I resolve to read more.

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