||A Review of: Lighthousekeeping
by Michael Harris
In her first novel since rounding off a seven-book cycle, Jeanette
Winterson presents Lighthousekeeping-a slim volume on Love, Time,
and plucky perseverance despite Orphan Annie-type troubles.
Our Scottish heroine is named merely Silver ("I was born part
precious metal part pirate"). The absence of a surname is
appropriate as Silver lacks blood family and, being young, a past.
Dad was a lusty sailor who dropped anchor for a night and was gone
with the morning bird. Mom fell to her grisly death during an
ill-conceived climbing expedition, which left poor Silver to be
taken in by the kindly, blind lighthouse keeper named Pew.
The missing surnames in Lighthousekeeping are not conceived as
snappy monikers in the style of "Cher" or "Madonna".
They serve Winterson's larger thesis-for this novel is practically
an essay masquerading as fiction, a cracking, intelligent essay on
Charles Darwin's idea that everything is "flux, change, trial
and error, maverick shifts." No need for a family (let alone
a family name) if all is "flux" and "maverick
Silver grows up in the Cape Wrath lighthouse, just outside the small
town of Salts. She is a Scottish Rapunzel of sorts, cut off from
society, listening to the sailor stories that her guardian, Pew,
can recite with his Homeric memory for the spoken word. And in her
tower Silver learns, as all thoughtful young heroines do, to become
self-reliant, to love faithfully, and to accept that love, too,
obeys the laws of evolution. It moves.
We citizens of the 21st century don't easily notice Darwin's
reverberations; we take them in like dogma. But remember the grumpy
old 17th century Cardinal in Bertolt Brecht's Galileo: "I won't
have it! I won't be a nobody on an inconsequential star briefly
twirling hither and thitherI am the centre of the Earth, and the
eye of the Creator is upon me." A godless world of "flux,
change, trial and error," is terrifying to the uninitiated.
What Winterson's novel so wisely captures is the way conceptual
revolutions like Darwin's and Galileo's are mirrored in the private
revolutions of the human heart. Silver's life story plays like a
faraway radio signal, which makes for rapt, if disorienting, reading.
"There is no continuous narrative," warns the Darwinian
Silver, referring to her bungled attempts at biography. "There
are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark." She likens personal
memory to an archeological dig. Her history is patchy at best.
Compare Silver's idea of "lit-up moments" with the last
lines from Winterson's earlier novel, Sexing the Cherry: "And
even the most solid of things and the most real, the best-loved and
the well-known, are only hand-shadows on the wall. Empty space and
points of light."
Perhaps, if we measure books by hearty ideas, Lighthousekeeping is
not so great a departure for Winterson. Where she does break away
more forcefully from her earlier work is with this new novel's form.
Like Virginia Woolf (Winterson has been asked by Vintage to commission
introductions for all nine of Woolf's novels and Lighthousekeeping
alludes To the Lighthouse more than once) Winterson has always held
a deep investment in novelistic form. But now this interest is
lovingly explicit. How is a story made? How, in the case of
Lighthousekeeping, do you tell a love story?
Tell it the same as any other history, is Winterson's deadpan answer.
We make do with "cumulative deposits-our fossil record-and the
beginnings of what happens next. They are the beginning of a story,
and the story we will always tell." Here we have Winterson the
What we lose with the dismissal of structural integrity is a clean
narrative. "This is not a love story, but love is in it,"
writes Winterson. And, indeed, love bangs noisily outside the tower
of clever prose. Or lighthouse, rather. The sea-read: life, change,
evolution-bats around the safe haven of the lighthouse. And, alas,
even half-pirates must one day grow up and leave the adopted nest.
As we might suspect, young Silver is badly equipped for "real"
life, having grown up in a Jeanette Winterson novel. What's more,
her hair is red, so we know she is overly imaginative, burdened
with a hot temper, and (if Canadian) liable to be pushing glasses
of currant wine.
She grows up in fits and starts, travels through the Americas and
takes a spell in Capri (the site of Winterson's witty children's
book as well). She steals a parrot from a sad old woman and, for
this, is subjected to psychiatric evaluation. "Do you feel you
have more than one life perhaps?" wonders the gentle, well-groomed
doctor. "Of course I do," replies Silver. "It would
be impossible to tell one single story."
"Perhaps you should try," is the doctor's return.
Mimicking Darwin's notion that life is a riot of transformation,
without perfect, stable forms, Silver is "twice flung"-from
her mother and eventually from good old Pew. "I looked for a
safe landing and soon made the mistake of finding one." The
mistaken landing pad leads to a love affair with the unnamed
"you" of the story and also to the aforementioned
parrot-theft. The sultry erotics we expect from Winterson make a
brief appearance at the onset of Silver's love affair but they duck
away just as suddenly ("this is not a love story, but love is
Silver suggests that "this caught moment opening into a
lifetime," might be the best it gets for us confused mortals.
A moment of cohesive narrative-alright, but again, "it would
be impossible to tell one single story" (for Winterson, anyway).
Whatever Silver may say about it, we needn't go farther than another
lover of parrots to hear otherwise. Mr. Braithwaite, the peevish
and lovable narrator of Julian Barnes's Flaubert's Parrot, insists
"There is a pure story, whatever you may thinkTruths about
writing can be framed before you've published a word." Though,
despairingly, Braithwaite admits that "truths about life can
be framed only when it's too late to make any difference."
The hero of Flaubert's Parrot is motivated by the death of his wife
to make some sense of the random human condition. Silver, whose
parents vanish before she has bitten on life at all, is elegizing
her own life (to the lover? the reader?), telling her ragged,
Virginia Woolf wanted to call To the Lighthouse an elegy, not a
novel. And, similarly, Winterson's Lighthousekeeping is and is not
a proper novel. Call it an elegy, call it an essay, but the
unmistakable stamp here is a spare, supple and cool prose that can
break your heart without ever drawing a tear. There isn't much of
a story-Girl meets Lover of unspecified gender, Girl loses same-but
the miracle is in the telling.
Winterson's books are haversacks of narrative experiment, and they
sprawl with linguistic pyrotechnics. The familiar admonishment to
"Make it New" is religiously followed by Winterson, in
Lighthousekeeping, as always. She knows how very tired we readers
have grown; and her prose hits like espresso.