Jeanette Winterson is an original, there is no doubt. A writer whose first and only mistress in the story, its canon and the meanings and maps that it provides for the living. Utterly unafraid of being misunderstood Winterson’s inimitable – though God knows every girl doing a creative writing paper at university tries – deeply romantic style, a creation of a time and place that are the sparse and endlessly shifting life rafts on which the stories float. Unconfined by genre her books – fiction and non-fiction – have perhaps only two qualities in common: they are all exquisitely written and one way or another love stories – the seductive power of the story itself being paramount.
Lighthousekeeping, Winterson’s eleventh book, is the story of Silver, “part precious metal part pirate” – the bastard child whose birth condemns her mother to Coventry on the cliffs above the sea side town of Salts – a place where you can never look back. She is tragically – is there any other way – orphaned at age ten and consequently apprenticed by the good folk of Salts to the the atavistic Pew, a cataract clouded light house keeper. As Pew teaches Silver lighthousekeeping, he also recounts the story he knows, because that’s what lighthousekeepers do, it’s like a genealogical imperative, something primeval and instinctive which is echoed in the imagery of fossils and frequent mentions of Darwin throughout the text.
The story that Pew tells is that of their lighthouse on the Cape of Wrath and Babel Dark (great name), preacher for the town of Salts, catalyst for the building of the lighthouse, father of one son and one blind daughter, violent bigamist, hypocrite and inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. From Pew Silver also learns that: “The lighthouse is a known point in the darkness” and that love sometimes remains hidden like fossils and is the most precious and elusive trace element of all. “There were two Atlantics,” Silver says on the night she is orphaned, “one outside the lighthouse, and one inside me. The one inside me had no string of guiding lights,” and so Silver’s path is set.
When the lighthouse is automated Silver leaves her tower, her Pew and her dog DogJim and journeys out into the world to find her own lighthouse/love story (because love like a lighthouse needs people) guided only by the tale of Babel Dark.
The writing, for all the weight of thought that is behind it is light and sparse, the details bare, but beautifully distilled and utterly quirky: DogJim has back legs two inches shorter than his front, Silver’s bed has eight legs and the Full strength Samson Tea that brings Pew home, fantastic names (there is also a Miss Pinch) just to name a few. The novel is also woven through with contradictions, contractions and polarities: Pew is blind but sees everything, Babel is a man of God but has no charity, Robert Louis Stevenson is a story teller and a builder of lighthouses, Silver, which reflects 95% of its own light, seeks a lighthouse for her darkness and Darwin is a seeker of enlightenment against Babel’s essentially Godless darkness. In short all is symbolic and all is loaded, but in the most delightful way which is not unlike Kate Atkinson – particularly her latest book Not the End of the World. And like Atkinson, Winterson has the ability to translate her “ideas” in such a way that the reader understands the essence from the narrative itself, even if it’s all a bit vague and illusionary. Plenty to talk and think about.
I loved Lighthousekeeping, the imagery, the metaphors, the gothic-ness of Babel Dark’s story and character and the wonderful clarity of Silver’s voice and because of this it seems only fair to let her finish this off: “I lived in a house cut steep into the bank. The chairs had to be nailed to the floor, and we were never allowed to eat spaghetti. We ate food that stuck to the plate – shepherd’s pie, goulash, risotto, scrambled egg. We tried peas once – what a disaster – and sometimes we still find them, dusty and green in the corners of the room.
Some people are raised on a hill, others in the valley. Most of us are brought up on the flat. I came at life on an angle, and that’s how I’ve lived ever since.”