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20 May 2005

Jeanette Winterson's newest novel Lighthousekeeping is probably her most readable and enjoyable book since Written on the Body (1992). That's not saying a great deal, because her intervening prose has been opaque when not trite. But Written on the Body is a very fine lyrical evocation of love, and in flashes, Lighthousekeeping can match its lyricism if not its plot interest.

One has to admire the occasional fusion of imagery and emotion in a passage like this one from Lighthousekeeping, where a lover tells the narrator Silver

about a day in Thailand when you had seen turtles hatch in the sand. Not many of them make it to the sea, and once there, the sharks are waiting for them. Days disappear and get swallowed up much like that, but the ones like these, the ones that make it, swim out and return for the rest of your life.

Thank you for making me happy. (216)

But while it has poetic moments, Lighthousekeeping is anything but a novel of ideas. And as so often, Winterson wants her fiction to be intellectual. The problem is that her ideas are usually facile, grabbed from the most obvious sources without much discretion.

Lighthousekeeping winds two stories together: a contemporary personal narrative (Silver is the same age as Winterson herself), and a Victorian narrative of double lives and religious doubts. The overall feel of the story is vaguely reminiscent of A.S. Byatt's Possession. And its Victorian half features fossils and Darwin, offering a touch of Graham Swift's Ever After or even John Fowles's French Lieutenant's Woman. In another thread, a duplicitous Victorian character prefigures, and even becomes the model for, R.L. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

This is semi-intellectual stuff, rather ham-handedly and unconvincingly slapped onto a quirky contemporary story about a latter-day lighthouse keeper who takes Silver into his care. One cannot imagine a real Darwin doing any of the things he's supposed to do in this novel; and if he's only a symbolic Darwin, he's even duller, a sort of Darwin-for-beginners. Meanwhile, in the 20th century, the main theme of Silver's story is her own addiction to stories, her addiction to reading – giving much of the central narrative the odd feel of a Newbery medal candidate, with its extolling of the pleasures of library books.

It strikes me that what Winterson is really good at is the more-or-less straightforward contemporary novel of manners and minutiae of everyday life: the mode of her outstanding first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), and also of Written on the Body. Stylized quasi-historical fictions have been her fatal Cleopatra. Lighthousekeeping is a hybrid of Winterson at her best and Winterson at her worst.

Winterson may buy her ideas straight off the rack, but she has always had one great non-intellectual theme: the consuming, scalding surprise of love. And she keeps finding new ways to express it:

Sometimes, floating face up in his underwater cave, a memory so bright hit him, like the flat of a sword, that the water opened, and he felt his face rush up for air, and he gulped air, and in the night, all around him, were the stars lying on water. He kicked them with his upturned feet. He was patterned in stars. (222)

Winterson's central Victorian character (he of the underwater vision) is named Babel Dark, a monicker that recalls Paul Auster's City of Glass; she is like Auster at times in her conceits, but lacks Auster's compulsive (and compelling) precision. The title of her novel recalls another American classic, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping – and in its mixture of intense personal narrative (a narrative about the dispossession of a foster child) and in its lyric flights, Winterson's book seems to emulate Robinson's. But this is, after all, only Housekeeping Lite.

Winterson, Jeanette. Lighthousekeeping. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004.