Jeanette Winterson’s Poetic New Novel

There was a time in my life when all writing fell into two neat categories – there was poetry, and then there was prose. Then one day I stumbled across a copy of Art and Lies and all of that changed forever. Jeanette Winterson is, quite simply, the most ravishing phrase maker in English letters today. Her novels explore the richness of the English language like no others, polishing it to the most shimmering it can be, overpowering you with the fine excess of the writing. You cannot read Winterson – you have to immerse yourself in her exquisite prose and keep reminding yourself to breathe.

Lighthousekeeping, her new novel is the logical next step in a growing trend in Winterson’s writing. Over the years, as Winterson has come to trust the power of her words more (or, as her critics, would have it, she has slipped into the trap of relying on it too much), she has tended to leave the superfluities of plot and story behind, striving instead for an almost Proust like purity of writing for its own sake*. Her plots were never much to start with, but at least in her early novels (Written on the Body, Gut Symmetries, The Passion) there was the sense of someone trying to assemble a coherent storyline – the characters were imaginative, the plot had a consistent if somewhat magic realist feel to it. Lighthousekeeping has no such treasures to offer – the novel is ostensibly about the (vaguely) parallel stories of a mid-19th century small town preacher and a young orphan girl called Silver who has been taken on as an apprentice in a lighthouse by a blind man named Pew**. But there’s no real life in these plots themselves – the reverend’s story seems incredibly hackneyed and tame by Winterson’s standards, and the story of Silver, while entertaining in episodes (there’s a wonderful chapter about her frenzy to complete Death of Venice that ends in her stealing a copy of the book from the librarian) completely fails to come together into anything approaching a coherent whole. There are some attempts to tie the story together (references to lighthouses and storytelling abound and there is some interesting structural repetition) but these seem as if they haven’t been clearly thought through (or even less thought through than Winterson’s work usually is). The overall impression is of a novel that is more a collection of brilliant jazz improvisations than one solid, thought-out symphony. It’s almost as if Winterson just wrote what she wanted, each chapter almost by itself, and then just randomly put it together.

(The novel, to be fair, does try to justify this by arguing that all stories exist continously at all times – that there is no such thing as an end or a beginning to a story and that what happens in the story depends on how you tell it and who you tell it to. This is an interesting – and possibly valid – point, but if you’re looking for coherent plot development, this is DEFINITELY not the book for you)

Fortunately, Winterson more than compensates for this lack of coherence with some of the most exquisite writing she has ever done. Winterson’s great gift is to write sentence after sentence, phrase after phrase of such burning clarity that you don’t even notice that in the end she hasn’t really said anything – and that gift is on full display here. Who but Winterson could describe the moon as “that pale tenant of the sun” or start a chapter with the line “This is not a love story, but love is in it. That is, love is just outside it, looking for a way to break in”. Who but Winterson could write this:

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and Richard Wagner completed his opera Tristan and Isolde. Both are about the beginnings of the world.
Darwin – objective, scientific, empirical, quantifiable.
Wagner – subjective, poetic, intuitive, mysterious.

In Tristan the world shrinks to a boat, a bed, a lantern, a love-potion, a wound. The world is contained within a word – Isolde.
The Romantic solipsism that nothing exists but the two of us, could not be farther from the multiplicity and variety of Darwin’s theory of the natural world. Here, the world and everything in it forms and is reformed, tirelessly and unceasingly. Nature’s vitality is amoral and unsentimental; the weak die, the strong survive.
Tristan, weak and wounded, should have died. Love healed him. Love is not part of natural selection.
Where did Love begin? What human being looked at another and saw in their face the forests and the sea? Was there a day, exhausted and weary, dragging home food, arms cut and scarred, that you saw yellow flowers and, not knowing what you did, picked them because I love you?

In the fossil record of our existence, there is no trace of love. You cannot find it held in the earth’s crust, waiting to be discovered. The long bones of our ancestors show nothing of their hearts. Their last meal is sometimes preserved in peat or in ice, but their thoughts and feelings are gone.”

(this chapter is followed immediately by a re-telling of the Tristan and Isolde myth in first person, which is one of the most exquisite renditions of the story that I have ever read)

Bottomline: Lighthousekeeping is not so much a novel as a collection of breathtaking writing, of visionary descriptions and superb sentences. Read it as you would some other novel and you’ll probably be disappointed; read it as a collection of prose-poems and it could prove one of the richest, most sensual experiences of your life.

* Not, of course, that I would compare Winterson to Proust – I really love her writing, but that would definitely be an over-statement

** The plot of the book reminded me strongly of a superb Graham Swift novel called Ever After – although in Swift’s novel the plot really comes alive in a vivid, involving way that it certainly doesn’t here.