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.