on 29 July 2011
Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson tells the story of Silver, a young girl who is orphaned when her mother falls to her death as they climb the cliff that leads to their house. Silver moves in initially with a carer and then into the local lighthouse which is run by a man named Pew. Pew is blind but he is an excellent storyteller, and stories form the basis for their bond.
The lighthouse reflects the way Pew sees the world- in darkness: "The darkness had to be brushed away or parted before we could sit down", and also the way he finds light within that dwelling. Pew tells Silver the story of Babel Dark, a local pastor who married two women, one because he loved her and one because she was pregnant. His tale is foreboding and enchanting and Dark is revered as an almost legendary or mythical figure, however his life is based on lies and deceit and these are eventually his undoing.
Silver feeds on Pew's stories as an escape from her mother's recent death and since she has no companions besides Pew and her dog. When Pew has to leave his role as lighthousekeeper, Silver is left to fend for herself in the reality of the world and create her own stories.
Winterson's writing style in Lighthousekeeping is charmingly poetic and even lyrical at times. This is a story about stories and the importance of storytelling. This book is not an easy read as it is so rich with the nuances of storytelling, blurring fact with fiction and crossing time to bring characters from different eras to life.
Lighthousekeeping is both experimental and unusual. I felt that it slipped into the fairytale genre halfway through the book, and left a lot of its plot for the reader's imagination to unravel. It is a short read and by the end I felt nourished by its refreshing method of storytelling.
on 4 May 2004
If ever a book warranted the over-used (and usually optimistic) critical phrase "a return to form," Lighthousekeeping is it. After the brilliant but dense and closed Art & Lies (of which Winterson now says "It was written at a time when I was looking inwards, not outwards ... sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't"), the patchy Gut Symmetries and the (in my view) atrocious The PowerBook, Lighthousekeeping - supposedly the beginning of a new cycle in her writing - is a breath of sea air.
As a new cycle in her writing (she says her first seven novels were a complete cycle in themselves), it doesn't half look a lot like the old one. But this is to be expected: all writers revisit their old turf throughout their lives: as Martin Amis said when pre-empting such criticisms of Yellow Dog, "the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn." So Lighthousekeeping retains Winterson's abiding interest in love ("the greatest human achievement"), storytelling ("Trust me. I'm telling you stories"), the multiplicity of history, parentless children and boundaries of desire, but puts them in the service of something lighter and brighter than we have seen from her probably since Sexing the Cherry.
The story is narrated by Silver. Silver's gender remains undeclared through most of the book, as a ten-year-old child, which I thought was an echo of Written on the Body where Winterson did the same thing, although I have never been able to read the narrator there as anything other than a woman, and a Jeanette-shaped woman at that. Anyway towards the end we discover that Silver when fully grown wears a bra, so we can - probably - put paid to that theory. Silver is orphaned when her mother, roped to her to climb the slope to their home, falls.
"Up she went, carrying the shopping, and pulling me behind her like an after-thought. Then some new thought must have clouded her mind, because she suddenly stopped and half-turned, and in that moment the wind blew like a shriek, and her own shriek was lost as she slipped.
"In a minute she had dropped past me, and I was hanging on to one of our spiny shrubs - escallonia, I think it was, a salty shrub that could withstand the sea and the blast. I could feel its roots slowly lifting like a grave opening. I kicked the toes of my shoes into the sandy bank, but the ground wouldn't give. We were both going to fall, falling away from the cliff face to a blacked-out world.
"I couldn't hang on any longer. My fingers were bleeding. Then, as I closed my eyes, ready to drop and drop, all the weight behind me seemed to lift. The bush stopped moving. I pulled myself up on it and scrambled behind it.
"I looked down.
"My mother had gone."
And so Silver ends up, via the obligatory narky old maid character, living with Pew, keeper of the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Pew, of course, is blind, and may or may not have lived for hundreds of years. He keeps Silver entertained by telling her stories, mostly of the 19th century clergyman Babel Dark (no shortage of symbolic names here, no sir), who visited Cape Wrath and knew Robert Louis Stevenson and betrayed his wife with a scarlet (literally; the old Winterson obsession with redheads is back too) woman. The lighthouse is a richly suggestive symbol itself of course: "a known point in the darkness", part of "a string of lights" on "the coasts and outcrops of this treacherous ocean."
But for all its open-to-interpretation symbolism, Lighthousekeeping, like most of Winterson's books, doesn't really leave you in any doubt about where the author is coming from. She still values love over all else ("But today, when the sun is everywhere, and everything solid is nothing but its own shadow, I know that the real things in life, the things I remember, the things I turn over in my hands, are not houses, bank accounts, prizes or promotions. What I remember is love - all love - love of this dirt road, the sunrise, a day by the river, the stranger I met in a café").
But what is missing in Lighthousekeeping is the bitterness and ranting - one might almost say raving - against consumerism, tourists, heterosexual marriage, other people, which increasingly marred everything from Art & Lies onward. It seems then that Winterson has, miraculously, found a way to express - and boy can she express; only now when looking up these quotes I have been diverted and diverted again by endless brilliant phrases among the pages - her passion for the life she loves without turning it into an attack on Everything Else. Where before she could be a marauding mob brandishing torches of naked flames, burning things down (albeit asking questions at the same time): now she is a kindly light, still bright and powerful enough to be seen for miles but under control, a known point in the darkness of so much contemporary fiction.
on 20 January 2013
I absolutely adored this book. I couldn't put it down. I hadn't read JW since Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit yonks ago. It is like a fairy tale - it's mystical, it's lyrical, it's intriguing, it's inspiring, it's fantasy, it's emotional, it's funny, it's so imaginative and yet feels so true. It pulls at the heart strings of your mind. I loved Silver and her curiosity, her desire to know more, her dream of belonging. You want her to succeed. You root for her to find love and belonging. She's a wonderful character and JW is, at least with this book, a wonderful uplifting writer.
on 8 May 2009
I write this review because of the reason I read the book. I loved the book and wish I was clever enough to unwrap all its layers. I'd recommend it to any open minded adult prepared to have their prejudices about science/responsibility/love/truth/story challenged. However, I read it because Amazon listed it under books for children. In no way is this suitable for children (I was thinking 10 year olds) on so many levels they are not worth listing: I doubt if more than 10% of the adult population could make a reasonable stab at understanding it all, and the various sex scenes are arrestingly described but disquieting in their underlying values.
on 23 August 2004
Silver is a girl born completely by chance. Her mother had a brief encounter with a sailor, leaving the penniless woman to raise the baby girl in a crooked house tipping into the sea. The house was so slanted that the family dog's legs grew irregularly and they couldn't eat any food that would roll away. Eventually Silver is taken by a hilariously prudish woman named Miss Pinch (a curiously Dickensian touch from an author who has spoken so condescendingly about the work of Sarah Waters) to live with a lighthouse keeper named Pew. From Pew she learns the art of story telling and consequently a way of finding value in her life. Because of her origins and social status Silver is viewed by people like Miss Pinch as worthless or an accident. Through the medium of story telling Silver is able to forge for herself an identity more true than any documented reality.
Interwoven with the tale of the novel's central character Silver, is the story of a priest named Babel Dark. He is a fascinatingly divided character, something Winterson has Robert Louise Stevenson cement in English literature. As always, the author's surreal nature of story telling melds with philosophical insights which have the ability to really turn our world upside down. Stunningly beautiful passages add depth to wonderfully quirky tales. Winterson always holds up the importance of storytelling in a way that is ceaselessly inventive and inspiring and makes you want to read on.
on 29 August 2015
Nobody writes quite like Jeanette Winterson. Even when I lose the plot literally, which I did, I enjoy reading her. It’s a mix of stories, and I’m not sure I got all the connections. I enjoyed the blend for the first three quarters of the book but seemed to drift off at the end. Still, she’s a 4 star read.
10-year-old Silver and her single mum live in a house on a hillside so steep that they sleep in hammocks and eat food that will stick to the plate (peas roll away forever), and they tie themselves together to get up to the house.
When Silver is orphaned, she is fostered out in the tiny village of Salts to Pew, a blind lighthouse keeper. Yes, blind. But he says to her once, “You have the handicap of sight, it’s true. . . . Never rely on what you can see. Not everything can be seen.”
She falls in love with Pew’s stories, with books and the library, which she’s not allowed to join. She is so frustrated at borrowers checking out books she’s only started, that she finally steals one.
Alongside this story, we follow the tale of Babel Dark, a philandering preacher in Salts in the 1800s who, much to the delight of Charles Darwin, discovers fossils high on the seaside cliffs, evidence that supports Darwin’s The Origin of Species, leading to fame for the village.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous author (Treasure Island, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) was the grandson of Robert Stevenson who built this and other lighthouses, which opens up discussion about lighthouses and the nature of man - the light and the dark.
On the whole, a mystifying, thought-provoking book..
P.S. An example of her style from near the end, in Silver’s adulthood:
"The boat was vacuum-packed with Albanians, four generations to a family: great-grandmother, air-dried like a chilli pepper, deep red skin and a hot temper; grandmother, all sun-dried tomato, tough, chewy, skin split with the heat; getting the kids to rub olive oil into her arms; mother, moist as a purple fig, open everywhere – blouse, skirt, mouth, eyes, a wide-open woman, lips licking the salt spray flying from the open boat. Then there were the kids, aged four and six, a couple of squirts, zesty as lemons."
on 11 January 2011
'Lighthousekeeping' is a joy to read, with the language washing over you like waves. As with many of Winterson's books, this is a book about stories - historical stories, legendary stories, and the self as a series of story beginnings - the point being that all are stories without ends, as they're always being retold, becoming again in each retelling.
A lovely book about Silver, DogJim, Pew, Babel Dark, and the lighthouse at Cape Wrath.
on 11 May 2014
There is sometimes, perhaps often, a bit of magic in Jeanette Winterson's writing. Here it appears in the scene, the characters and even the uneven passage of time. But more than the amazing writing and storytelling, there is a profound, all-permeating message in this story that makes it quite impossible to disengage from the story even when the cover is closed.
on 6 September 2008
A beautiful, lyrical, poignant, book which moved me to tears and made me feel glad to be alive. Winterson captures the essence of being and is able, with so few words, to evoke moods, atmospheres and the quintessential moments in life upon which time turns and self-realisation occurs. In my opinion, her writing just gets beter and better.
on 2 June 2005
Jeanette Winterson's, Lighthousekeeping is a richly imagined, highly stylized collection of memories, recollections, and stories. Jettisoning the traditional plot, Winterson weaves an emotional, intensely imagined tale that sweeps from the present into the past, and where love, time, and reality crash against the Cape Wrath lighthouse, "home to gulls and dreams," which for generations, has held steadfast on the most northwesterly tip of Scotland.
After the death of her mother, the 10-year-old fatherless Silver becomes an orphan. With no place to anchor, her teacher, Mrs. Pinch apprentices her to the enigmatic Pew, a blind old lighthouse keeper, who can miraculously see through all of time. Pew is a "rough shape of a human", an old man with "a bag of stories under his arm"; an unfathomable figure, "he was and he wasn't."
Initially fraught at losing all the things she knew and fretted over, Silver gradually learns to like the mysterious old man. As she cooks for him and helps with cleaning the various instruments, she begins to notice that there are days "when he could have evaporated into the spray, and days when he actually was the light house."
Pew tells her that if she really wants to be at "one" with the lighthouse, she must learn the lighthouse's stories, the brittle ghosts of the building's past, the stories that are "layered in time." For Pew, our past existence and the stories that we keep are like the flashes of light the lighthouse sends out to passing ships, a human connection in a world that is composed of both light and dark.
Pew tells Silver the story of Babel Dark, a nineteenth-century clergyman, who was named after the biblical tower. Dark, a secret bigamist has been living double life. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Dark is besotted by Molly, a red headed, passionate girl with whom he lives for only two months a year under the name of Lux. Dark is a living version of the lighthouse, a life troubled and distressed by the forces of night and day.
Dark is desperately in love with Molly, but he can't give her the total commitment she so desperately wants. Thus his life is fraught with turmoil and disorder. Silver, as she grows older, begins to realize that like Babel Dark, her life is also a trail of shipwrecks and set-sails. No arrivals, no destinations, "another boat, another ride." And she ponders what it was like to be lost and alone a hundred and fifty years ago.
Through these parallel lives, Winterson is saying that life is often fraught with chance. We meet, we don't meet, and we take the wrong turning, "and still bump into one another." Sometimes we even "conscientiously" choose the right road but it leads nowhere. But amongst all this chaos is love. Love is eternal, a force of nature, "as strong as the sun, as necessary, as impersonal, and as gigantic." When it burns out the planet (and we) die.
In sparse, but beautiful language the author paints a portrait of humanity that is eternally restless, and like the solidity of the lighthouse, we yearn for a stable world without volatility, precariousness, and inexplicableness.
Silver, stripped of the bright security of the lighthouse, wanders the world in search of meaning, stealing a book and bird that she believes might hold enlightenment. Dark's ending is tragedy, as he suspends his mistrust in Molly and professes his love too late.
Silver survives and finds true love because she accepts the enigmatic true state of human nature, and carries with her the gift of storytelling that Pew was ultimately able to bestow on her. Mike Leonard June 05.