Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson

My friends T&P bought this book in Victoria a couple of months ago. I leafed through it and immediately fell under its spell. I didn’t want to give it back. The opening chapter was stunning: imaginative, beautiful, bizarre.

Lighthousekeeping1T&P were kind enough to buy me my own copy. At first I devoured it, luxuriating in the rich prose as in a bath (and those who love books as objects as well as literature will be shocked to discover that my immersion is not always the literary kind alone).

Then, as is the way with Winterson’s books, she tumbles over that fine line where the deliciously strange becomes just weird. I put it aside for a time. But I was drawn back to it, once again willing to wait for the moments when the language has such extraordinary freshness that you forgive the author almost anything.

As a child, Silver lives with her mother in a house precariously balanced on the side of a steep hill in Salts, a “sea-flung, rock-bitten, sand-edged shell of a town.” In this house, everything is at such an angle that they eat only foods that stick to their plates. After buying supplies, they climb back up to their home, roped together and wearing safety harnesses. One day, Silver’s mother slips.

Up she went, carrying the shopping, and pulling me behind her like an afterthought. Then some new thought must have clouded her mind, because she stopped and half-turned, and in that moment the wind blew like a shriek, and her own shriek was lost as she slipped.

Ten years before I had pitched through space to find the channel of her body and come to earth. Now she had pitched through her own space, and I couldn’t follow her.

The town leaves it to Miss Pinch, the schoolteacher, to find a solution to the problem of the orphaned Silver. Miss Pinch, who lives in Railings Row, is a woman given to sayings like “Life is a Steady Darkening Towards Night.” She decides to apprentice Silver to Pew, the blind lighthousekeeper. The lighthouse is at Cape Wrath, high on a bleak cliff. Pew tells Silver stories and encourages her to develop her own stories.

Pew seems ageless, or perhaps he has always been old. He says there have always been Pews at Cape Wrath. Time is an elusive thing in Lighthousekeeping: Silver is orphaned in 1969, but the atmosphere is Victorian. Hints of the world outside Salts appear only occasionally and Pew’s stories of characters from the nineteenth century take on a more immediate reality. He tells the story of Babel Dark, a clergyman who lived in Salts. Dark led a double life: he was an abusive husband in a joyless marriage in Salts, but he left his wife twice a year to stay with his mistress, Molly O’Rourke, in Bath.

Now the story of Silver becomes one of a series of stories involving Babel Dark, his father Josiah, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Charles Darwin. Chapters become dizzyingly mixed. Silver grows up; she and Pew are ejected from the lighthouse because of automation; and her own love story starts to intertwine with the others. At this point, Winterson seems to be writing a different book and the last chapters become a contemporary love story.

The book is about light and dark, the nature of time, the nature of love, the stories we live and the stories we tell. Winterson is not as disciplined as she might be and a slightly firmer editorial hand might have tightened things up in the latter part of the book. But it’s rich and wonderful and the images continue to haunt me.

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