|A Review byRebecca James|
|Lighthousekeeping Jeanette Winterson, 2004
"A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method."
Silver's narrative immediately warns her readers that the journey of words they are about to witness will be somewhat unusual. For those familiar with Winterson's earlier works, the blending of stories and voices is a moving and artistic retreat from the direct linear plots of much contemporary fiction and movies. It takes a while for new readers to let their guards down and free up their expectations. Reading Lighthouse-keeping is like submerging yourself in the very waters Silver describes swirling over, pounding, surrounding the solid foundation of the flashing beacon at Cape Wrath.
Winterson balances the story told by Silver, which moves fluidly yet somewhat chronologically through her life with that of Babel Dark, a 19th century preacher with a Jekyll and Hyde life. The story of Dark is told from the perspective of blind Pew, a descendant of Dark's and the most recent of a long succession of Pews to tend the Scotland lighthouse. Old Pew becomes Silver's guardian after her mother dies in an unusual climbing accident. Tragic in itself, the twist is that Silver and her mother were climbing to their home, cut deep and crooked into a jagged cliff overlooking the town of Salts. They had been socially banished to that location in 1959, since Silver's illegitimate birth ten years before. Because of their isolation, Silver was already a slightly odd child. Even her dog was odd. DogJim, as he was called, has front legs longer than his back legs because he has always lived on the unleveled ground of Silver's home. He is "cheerful," though: "If he thinks at all, he thinks that every dog is like him, and so he suffers none of the morbid introspection of the human race, which notes every curve from the norm with fear or punishment."
Silver is definitely outside the norm. Her constant introspection makes her a target after she and Pew are automated out of their lighthousekeeper jobs. She is "out of touch with reality" according to one of her adult therapists.
Silver spends several years learning to "see" in the dark, unlit rooms of Pew's lighthouse. He teaches her the power of stories, the history of the lighthouse, and the importance of love, although, curiously, he has no lover. The lighthouses, according to Pew, charted "safety and danger" for the first time in history when a series of them were constructed and mapped in the early 1800s. Each lighthouse was known more by its stories of adventure and peril than its name. "No, every light was a story, and the flashes themselves were the stories going out over the waves, as markers and guides and comfort and warning." And so Pew tells his story, which blends with the Pews who went before him, and he challenges Silver to narrate her own story as well as continue the tradition of telling others' stories.
"There it is; the light across the water, your story. Mine. His. It has to be seen to be believed. And it has to be heard. In the endless babble of narrative, in spite of the daily noise, the story waits to be heard [...] Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken."
The words Silver hears and reads about Babel Dark, his love and his life, are a study of truth and character. Distrust of his lover, Molly, leads him to abandon her and their unborn child before they marry. Deeply torn, he moves on to another world in Salts, where he preaches, marries a woman he despises, and otherwise creates a miserable, penitent life. His secret reunion with Molly and their beautiful blind daughter eventually brings him solace for 60 days a year; the other 305 he considers himself dead.
Silver's preoccupation with this story is encouraged by the discovery of Dark's two journals. The first evidences his thoughts and life as a pastor; the second is a darker exploration of his depression and dual life.
Since Silver is not concerned with beginnings, ends, and other conventions of "reality," falling in love as an adult is more like immersing herself in another person than simply getting to know her. The woman she meets is "the light [that] is strong enough to reach the bottom of the sea."
She wins her over, by telling her their story, just as she was instructed by Pew to do years ago: "Don't wait. Don't tell the story later. Life is so short. This stretch of sea and sand, this walk on the shore, before the tide covers everything we have done."
Lighthousekeeping is more than a novel. It is the study of oral narratives in a written form. The force of her insight is at times unsettling, but her words are poetry. "My life is a hesitation in time. An opening in a cave. A gap for a word." This type of beauty is not meant to be read but to be absorbed and savored. Like the flashing beacon, her glimpse inside is a brief but important moment in literature.
Rebecca James teaches high school English in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She divides her reading time between Allentown and Rehoboth Beach.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 9 July 15, 2005