Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

DATE FINISHED: June 22nd, 2012 

RATED: ****

SYNOPSIS:  Orphaned Silver is apprenticed to lighthousekeeper Pew, and in the darkness of the lighthouse she finds stories hang in the air like seaspray. From Pew she learns about Babel Dark, the minister son of the man who built the lighthouse, and his own haunted tale of love and duality. And eventually Silver follows the trail to find a love of her own.

THOUGHTS:  Winterson’s musical prose weaves back and forth through time, painting vivid pictures of darkness and light, past and present but avoiding extraneous detail: a watercolour wash of dreamlike images. Although Silver’s story is juxtaposed against the historical Dark’s, it is told like a fable that flows just out of reach of the real world: “I have been trying to find out what reality is, so that I can touch it”.

The juxtaposition of light and dark, the lighthouse and Babel Dark, are obvious from the beginning, and this is extended to the Jekyll and Hyde duality of Dark’s nature, of all nature, as the story progresses (including a guest appearance from Robert Louis Stevenson himself). As Silver grows older and the comfort of the lighthouse is removed along with Pew and his stories, Silver’s own story loses a little direction for me. Silver represents light, but she is light versus heavy as well as versus dark, and sometimes so insubstantial she is in danger of drifting off into the air itself. The continued interwoven strands of Dark’s story keep the story grounded, his inner torment far more tangible as Winterson waxes lyrical about love inbetween.

Lyrical writing throughout helps make this is a quick and uplifting read, but ultimately I felt the balance between dark and light was never quite fully realised. It was an enjoyable read, but it is the lilting language I will remember, while its substance will wash back out with the next tide, drifting back in pieces.

“The darkness had to be brushed away or parted before we could sit down.  darkness squatted on the chairs and hung like a curtain across the stairway.  Sometimes it took on the shapes of the things we wanted: a pan, a bed, a book.  Sometimes I saw my mother, dark and silent, falling towards me.”

“I went outside, tripping over slabs of sunshine the size of towns.  The sun was like a crowd of people, it was a party, it was music.  The sun was blaring through the walls of houses and beating down the steps.  the sun was drumming time into the stone.  The sun was rhythming the day.” 

FOLLOWING ON:  Tom Gilling tells another light-as-air historical love story in Miles McGinty, while Ali Smith creates a joyfully transcendent love story in language equal to Winterson’s in Girl Meets Boy. For a similarly lyrical, seaborne fable, try The Seas by Samantha Hunt. If it’s the lighthouse that interests you, The Light Between Oceans might be worth a try (although I can’t personally recommend it).  Alternative re-imaginings of the Jekyll & Hyde phenomenon can be found in Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin, Stevenson Under the Palm Trees by Alberto Manguel, and A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll & Hyde by Kevin MacNeil.

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