Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson

Silver is orphaned and is sent to live with Pew, who looks after the lighthouse. Pew has lots of stories to tell about the history of the lighthouse and these are interwoven with Silver's account of her own story.

I'd not read any Jeanette Winterson before - I think the impression I have from having seen/heard her on the media is of someone who's rather stern and so I expected her writing would be more worthy than engaging. Or maybe I'm just rationalising after having read this one, because my prejudice was sort of confirmed.

Some of the writing is very good, and I liked the self-referential bits: at one stage, where we've moved to and fro a bit in narrative, there's a section where Silver asks Pew:

'Why can't you just tell me the story without starting with another story?'
'Because there's no story that's the start of itself, any more than a child comes into the world without parents.'
And the description of the aptly named Miss Pinch
She hated saying yes. She was of those people for whom yes is always an admission of guilt or failure. No was power.
[sic - I think there's a missing "one" there]

But... I couldn't really connect with the story. That's partly because it wasn't set in the real world - or at least, not entirely. Some of the passages are reliable enough, e.g. at the section where they get the letter about the impending automation of the lighthouse, I found myself thinking "oh good, we're in the real world, I can connect with this" but then there'll be a slightly more surreal passage and I can't hold on to it.

The book it reminded me most of was Oscar and Lucinda - there were sections in it which can't (in this world anyway) have been literally true (veering towards magic realism?) which makes me feel all bets are off, and you can't rely on anything being real. I guess this is intentional - Silver appears (at one stage) to be suffering from some kind of mental illness, so maybe it's a way of representing that. Like Oscar and Lucinda it feels like there's quite a big story being told, but it's not about the world I live in so I don't feel I can safely empathise with it.

And the other thing which sort of frustrated me a bit was that there were occasions where there would be aphorisms that sounded quite profound but didn't always bear scrutiny

maybe all stories are worth hearing, but not all stories are worth telling
I read that and thought "mmm, that's interesting" but then started thinking about it and I'm not sure it makes sense. Or I'm not sure what it's saying. Having just spent a couple of minutes thinking about it, I guess it must mean that telling a story makes it worth hearing. Maybe so, in which case that's quite good. But I'm not certain that's what it means (in the context of the passage anyway), and I'm not convinced that it's there just because it sounded cool. But maybe that's enough - there's plenty of other stuff in the book which isn't literally true but sounds good.

So it's another book I didn't really enjoy as much as I wanted to. And judging by the plaudits the book has received, maybe it just went over my head. Worth reading but wouldn't read it again. Might be one that Tim would like I suppose.

Completed : 22-Nov-2009

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