“I am confounded,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in Sexing the Cherry back in 1989, “by the shining water and the size of the world.” In the 16 years since, despite all claims to the contrary, the world has hardly shrunk, and neither have Winterson’s wide eyes. Lighthousekeeping, her latest, is woven from the same strands as her early novels: fairy-tale whimsy and defiant, impish wonder, love and heartbreak’s demands upon the soul.
Silver, Winterson’s narrator, is born in a “sea-flung, rock-bitten, sand-edged shell of a town.” The hillside house she shares with her mother is so crooked that they have to bind themselves together “just to achieve our own front door.” Her mother falls one day and unbuckles the harness to release poor Silver before tumbling solo to an early death. Only Pew, the blind, old lighthouse keeper, will consent to take in the poor orphan. She makes him tea and listens to his stories, mainly about the tortured Reverend Babel Dark, who haunted the shore long ago pining for a love named Lux.
This is a Jeanette Winterson novel after all, so Pew’s yarns, and later Silver’s, are not just about love and loss and all the usual fabulistic staples but about narrative itself, and the ways in which life refuses to conform to the boundaries of a story, just as desire rebels at the limits of the world. What’s missing, though, are all the terrifically Swiftian details that made her early works pulsate. Here Winterson sounds rushed and leans on giant metaphors to do description’s work. Worse, she never fails to tell us precisely what they mean: “He was dark. Babel Dark, the light in him never lit.”
This, though, is a Jeanette Winterson novel after all, and a lovely turn of phrase redeems a lot. There’s “the jerky amphetamine world,” the “sea-smashed nights,” a wounded heart “bed-soaked and jagg
ed,” and that’s almost enough.