Customer Review

18 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars a rehash, not a revisitation, 9 May 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Lighthousekeeping (Hardcover)
Let me preface this by saying I have, up until The PowerBook, been a huge Winterson fan. As such, my review follows:
Jeanette Winterson has called her previous seven novels a complete ‘novelistic cycle’. So, in coming to her latest novel Lighthousekeeping, a reader would expect to see something fresh and new, something that deviates from the paradigmatic tropes and themes of her last novels. Instead, what we are greeted by is a revisitation of hackneyed themes and recycled phrases (along with the re-telling of the myth of Tristan and Isolde, straight from her last novel The PowerBook) although, to her credit, the form is considerably different.
The narrative form here is more coherent and chronological, despite constant references to the past and the typical Wintersonian theme of non-linear time. We are introduced to our narrator, yet another orphan, this time called Silver. Much of the novel revolves around the stories told her (and which she herself then later tells) by Pew, a blind Tiresias figure who mans the Cape Wrath lighthouse. In fact, the contrast between dark and light is an ever-present theme in Lighthousekeeping: while Silver — herself a symbol of torch-bearing and the upholding of the tradition of storytelling — is associated with a potential light which her metallic name suggests, the blind seer figure in the novel is able to exist in a world of his own making, a world in which the stories exist or half-exist with no time to weigh them down.
The constant references to storytelling bring to mind Winterson’s brilliant novel The Passion, in which the conceit of narrative becomes one of storytelling or inevitable fictionalisation via the subjectivity of the one telling the tale: ‘Trust me. I’m telling you stories.’ Interjected with these sequences of stories from the past, present and future is a metafictional insertion of Winterson’s own narrative technique: ‘A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method.’ As such, this novel reads similarly to The Power.Book in that the frame of the narrative (that of storytelling) allows for shifts and time travelling to occur as tales are begun and then discarded in favour of others. The brilliant layering of narratives and the lucid characterisation in Art & Lies or GUT Symmetries, for example, is cut down in Lighthousekeeping to a bare minimum so that, as the text reads quickly and the prose is unimpressive, Winterson’s characteristic themes shine through all the more, leaving a familiar reader with the impression that they have indeed read this novel before. And it would seem that they probably have.
The nineteenth-century subplot, in which the reader is introduced to witty caricatures of Charles Darwin and Robert Louis Stevenson, is more intriguing than the ‘present’ tale that is its necessary framing device. Due to the constant tale-telling, however, the reader never gets to know Silver as well as he or she gets to know Babel Dark, the intriguing man who is supposed to represent the Jekyll and the Hyde in all of human nature. One moment Silver is under Pew’s care, learning the trade of lighthousekeeping, and the next she is a thief of books and talking birds (after which incidents she is questioned by a psychiatrist who feels she exhibits psychotic behaviour) while, a few page turns later, she is a sexual woman proclaiming the importance of love: ‘I love you. The three most difficult words in the world.’
These leaps are certainly forgivable in such a non-linear narrative but oftentimes this freedom of narrative time and space seems to be an excuse for Winterson to be as erratic as she possibly can. Gone is the cohesive, yet fragmented, love-letter that is Written on the Body; gone is the in-depth exploration of gender, art, love and madness which was so exactingly drawn out in GUT Symmetries, Sexing the Cherry, The Passion and Art & Lies. It seems to me as if Winterson’s ‘novel cycle’ should end with GUT Symmetries as The Power.Book and Lighthousekeeping are very much the same novel: they both frame a set of unrelated stories in such a way as to pass the finished manuscript off as a novel rather than as a book of short stories.
There are some delicious passages in Lighthousekeeping that make one yearn for the Winterson of the past, the one whose prose was layered and not simplistic, the one whose themes (while recycled) were not so didactically announced. In a novel so concerned with the art of storytelling I personally found the leap into (the obligatory) lesbian sex scene near the end of the novel a mere afterthought on the part of Winterson, either to uphold her status as a lesbian writer or else to bring in the theme of love which never seems to become fully tangible or realised within the rigid and unfixed world that is Lighthousekeeping.
‘Trust me. I’m telling you stories,’ Winterson states in The Passion. And the reader does realise he or she is dealing with a writer of rare talent, the reader is all ears, the noble and avid listener. But, at the same time, the reader wishes there was more than a mere one story to listen to over and over again.
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