Many books advocate the magic of books or of storytelling, but it has been my experience that often these novels themselves can’t live up to the ideals they purport. I am happy to say this was not the case with Jeanette Winterson’s lyrical, enchanting novel Lighthousekeeping, which is both an entertaining story and a beautiful reflection on stories as an essential source of meaning, and ultimately love, in our lives.
Lighthousekeeping opens with the peculiar story of our charming protagonist, Silver, who lives in a house with her mother which is permanently on a slant – so much so that they can only eat sticky food and must harness themselves in to move around. It reads like Lemony Snickett, and though the story will lose some of its blatant whimsy, it continues to dance along the high wire between fact and fancy.
When Silver is orphaned, she is sent to live with Pew, the local lighthouse keeper, who takes her on as an apprentice. And while Silver does learn how to work the light itself, Pew’s more important lessons are about the importance of stories. For it is the lighthouse keeper’s job to also keep the stories of the many sailors who come to port, and consequently, the lighthouse keepers, like the lighthouses themselves, act as a vital string of connections between people and places, repositories of meaning and memory. Pew also teaches the young orphan that stories offer roots just as people do, and that history is so much more than flesh and blood.
And so Pew tells Silver many stories, but primarily that of Babel Dark, a local minister who lived a double life – one in which he was kind and loving, and another in which he was selfish and cruel. He allegedly becomes the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (note also the names of Pew and Silver, though how they relate to Treasure Island‘s bloodthirsty pirates, I haven’t yet figured out).
The story then oscillates between Silver and Babel, but always retains its orality, with many sections opening with entreaties for a story between Pew and Silver. The narrative is somewhat fractured, and it isn’t fully logical, for it has already been established that this isn’t a story concerned with beginnings, middles and ends (in fact, it is one that postulates that these aren’t even possible). What remains beyond the facts however is the emotion, and Winterson’s warm, lyrical language, a steady beam of light that can guide the reader through the story.
Two historical figures also play a significant role in Babel’s tale – one, Robert Louis Stevenson, the other, Charles Darwin. Darwin is just revealing his theories of evolution, which should be set up as a contrast to Stevenson’s fantastical writing – and yet both ultimately have something to say – Stevenson about the origin of story in life, and Darwin about the origin of life in story. For although evolution is scientific, he also sees it as the story of humankind. He says to Babel, “Nothing can be forgotten. Nothing can be lost. The universe itself is one vast memory system. Look back and you will find the beginnings of the world.” We notice the similarity to Pew’s assertion to Silver that “there’s no story that’s the start of itself, any more than a child comes into the world without parents.” Consequently, we evolve through story, for it is the story that gives our transformations meaning.
For a while Silver loses Pew and the lighthouse and loses her way. She wanders, she is thought to be crazy, until she follows her own light, her heart, and rediscovers her own story. Then Silver can become the storyteller, for she realizes that storytelling is a way to make sense of the inconsistencies, the contradictions and the absurdities of reality – as is love. And so storytelling ultimately becomes an act of love. She realizes that stories can lead us to things that defy words, but that eventually words will also be what permit us to understand these experiences:
“Some people say that the best stories have no words. They weren’t brought up Lighthousekeeping. It is true that words often drop away, and that the important things are often left unsaid. The important things are learned in faces, in gestures, not in our locked tongues. The true things are too big or too small, or in any case always the wrong size to fit the template called language.
I know that. But I know something else too, because I was brought up to Lighthousekeeping. Turn down the daily noise and at first there is the relief of silence. And then, very quietly, as quiet as light, meaning returns. Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.”
There are many more details within this book worthy of discussion, but I haven’t figured them all out just yet – and sadly, I was reading an Advanced Reading Copy, which has now fallen apart – but I know Lighthousekeeping is a book I will come back to. It is short enough to be read in one sitting, perhaps on a stormy summer night or simply at at time when one feels lost at sea. For above all, as its title suggests, this book is act of lighthousekeeping, and gives the greatest pleasure that books can offer – the feeling of coming home.