Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

Lighthousekeeping is even more overtly about storytelling than Sexing the Cherry, and also made up of story after story. Silver—the one who’s “part precious metal part pirate”—is orphaned toward the beginning of the novel, and she is eventually taken in by Pew, the lighthousekeeper, as his apprentice. A great part of this apprenticeship is in storytelling:

‘I can teach you—yes, anybody—what the instruments are for, and the light will flash once every four seconds as it always does, but I must teach you how to keep the light. Do you know what that means?’

I didn’t.

‘The stories. That’s what you must learn. The ones I know and the ones I don’t know.’

‘How can I learn the ones you don’t know?’

‘Tell them yourself.’

LighthousekeepingIn a way I am getting ahead of myself, because before we even meet Pew Silver has already told us one of her loveliest stories: of the house on a cliff she grew up in with her mother, where anything not nailed down goes slip-sliding around. “We ate food that stuck to the plate—shepherd’s pie, goulash, risotto, scrambled egg. We tried peas once—what a disaster—and sometimes we still find them, dusty and green in the corners of the room.”

I suppose what really does it for me here is that I’m a sucker for well told stories, lovely small things with nice language and not too much said. When Silver talks about, her first night with Pew, eating “sausages and darkness” for supper, I know I am reading the (a) right book for me.

Pew and Silver keep the lighthouse together for years, and he’s passed down some wonderful stories. The tale of Babel Dark, a 19th century adulterous minister in the nearby town of Salts, is his main contribution: the story of the past, of the history of Salts, of the history of the light itself. And Pew tells these stories as though he himself knew and spoke to Dark, explaining to Silver that “there’s always been a Pew in the lighthouse at Cape Wrath.”

But modernization comes, pushing Silver out of the magical world of yarn spinning and into one where she can’t even read stories because she doesn’t have the proper identification to obtain a library card. She is unmoored here where her eccentricities are frowned upon and where most people don’t live in the fantastical story world that seems to cover not just her and Pew but all of Salts and Cape Wrath, places on the very edge of British existence, geographically and, now, economically.

There are so many messages here, about beginnings, middles, endings, retellings, and I’ll certainly be reading this again sometime, both for those and for the beautiful world Winterson (that is, Pew and Silver) creates. But the idea that’s sticking with me for now at least is one from the very end: “Don’t wait. Don’t tell the story later.”

2 comments to Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

  • This is my favourite of the Winterson I’ve read so far. I think she has a lovely turn of phrase, and for me the stories here are more integrated than in Sexing the cherry. I’ve also always wanted to live in a lighthouse!

  • nicole

    Oh, me too! There are of course quite a few maritime aspects to this book, which I really didn’t mention. But the setting, in the far north on the turbulent sea, was right up my alley.