Jeanette Winterson's new novel, Lighthousekeeping (Harcourt, $23), is a book of opposites. One of the main characters is a preacher, Babel Dark, who lives a double life in another town as Babel Lux (light). The lighthouse keeper, who illuminates the sea for passing sailors, is blind. Even the epigraph puts this into relief, with two quotations: "Remember you must die" (Muriel Spark) and "Remember you must live" (Ali Smith). At times, this structure of opposites seems contrived and heavy, but then Winterson writes a sentence that floats off the page, and you read on.
The main character, Silver, is an orphan taken in by the lighthouse keeper, Pew. While learning the job of "tending the light," Silver also learns to tend stories. Each lighthouse holds a story, the legend goes, and Pew appears to know them all. Now Silver must collect those stories so she can be the one to retell them.
This is clearly Winterson's mission, too, and some of the novel's most striking sections are homages to the art of storytelling. Pew's stories go back through time and have the feel of tradition and myth. Yet Winterson has written this book in her distinctive, form-defying style. Lighthousekeeping extols the importance of keeping stories alive at the same time that it pulls the traditions apart. "A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story," she writes. "But I have difficulty with that method."
Winterson has often combined essay and even philosophy with her fiction. At times, her writing can resemble pure thought. Sometimes she thinks in fantasy (story), and sometimes she thinks in ideas (essay). When she does either of these in Lighthousekeeping, her writing is marvelous and vivid. But often the two forms get confused. Too many characters feel like ideas -- Miss Pinch is everything petty and mean, for instance. While Dark is a complex character, his story becomes a morality tale whose lesson is heavy-handed and overstated.
Lighthousekeeping begins to lose its way about midway through, after Silver and Pew learn that the government will automate the lighthouse. Clearly Winterson is lamenting what is lost in the midst of progress, but she doesn't do much with that idea. The book rather haphazardly follows Silver through a few troubles, then to a love affair with a woman, but these sections don't hold the power of her days with Pew. Though the book purports to honor storytelling, it's not a particularly successful story. *
Carole Burns reviews fiction frequently for Book World.