Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
For many years, Winterson’s ‘The Passion’ was one of my favourite books. There was a perfect melding of myth and history, poetry and a sweeping romanticism that appealed to the romantic young man that I was. But perhaps as I’m less romantic than I once was, Winterson’s ‘Lighthousekeeping’ appealed to me less. While I thought her famed debut novel had a different tone, and voice, most of her other books that I’ve read have had the same voice and feel as this one: Short, portentous sentences, short chapters and short books that demonstrate imagination and reach, a wry sense of humour, and a love of stories, literature and storytelling. I was pretty on board with ‘Lighthousekeeping’ for much of it. I do find Winterson’s writing beautiful and some of the phrases and images are compelling. And yet, when her writing doesn’t work for me, it’s because it feels like the story, myth or characters are not tethered to the earth. There’s something SO ridiculous about it that I’ve fallen out of the spell. For example, the protagonist, Silver, born into a house at such a slope that nothing stayed in place, including her mother, lost to a fall on page 7. Instead of mythic, I found it silly. And while I would fall back under the spell of the book, we never spend enough time with any one character to really connect with them: the idea most central of all is that of storytelling, which has been used in so many great novels—that all there is left is telling stories, that all there is to do is tell stories, that all of life is a story—this didn’t feel to me a brilliant piece of work. Late in the book, there is a scene where Silver has grown up and is romancing a woman, and while it is all very romantic and quite beautifully written, it has NOTHING to do with the rest of the novel. WTF? All in all, this book is a borderline three stars for me, almost two stars, but I do have an affection for some of Winterson’s writing. My edition of the paperback, interestingly, has a ‘P.S.’ section with some thoughts from Winterson herself and an interview, the sort of thing these days you’d find from a Google search after reading a book you’re interested in. I guess this also was a factor tipping my rating to three stars, as it shows Winterson as born to be a writer, committed to her craft and to imagination, and that her dedication to storytelling is sincere. Before writing this, I came across the NYT review of this book, by Benjamin Kunkel (google it) which I’m aligned with, though he’s much more eloquent than I, and much more critical. ‘The novel concentrates the worst qualities of her writing.’ Ouch.