“It was a long story, and like most of the stories in the world, never finished. There was an ending—there always is—but the story went on past the ending—it always does.”
–Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
Jeanette Winterson is one of those lucky (talented) (poetic) (obsession-worthy) authors, like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro and sometimes Kurt Vonnegut, whose work gets shelved under Literature despite being, by and large, mother fucking speculative fiction. The Stone Gods is a post-apocalyptic, science fictional, dystopian experiment. Weight is a re-telling of the Atlas myth, Boating for Beginners a humorous take on Noah and his ark. The Battle of the Sun is straight up fantasy, though being young adult, it doesn’t get sent to the SFF ghetto and gets to sit next to the books about cancer and love triangles and body hair.
So Jeanette Winterson writes speculative fiction, ok? The kind of poetic, structurally and stylistically experimental, insightful, often-contains-homosexual-relationships speculative fiction that those whiny nostalgia dogs keep railing on. Pod I would love to see Jeanette Winterson win a Hugo. Hahahahahahaha. I don’t see why science couldn’t have pigs flying in a few years…
For me it was love at first word, and it is Winterson’s way with words that keeps me reading even when the summaries don’t sound like something I am obviously going to like. Take The Daylight Gate. I picked it up at the bookstore when it came out in 2012. I read the back. But I hadn’t quote grown into my Winterson obsession yet, and I didn’t buy it because though it was, for once, shelved in the SFF section, it sounded like a historical novel about witches and torture, and oh, I don’t know, that shit makes me so sad, and I tend to avoid it when seeking entertainment.
But on my birthday I visited Frankfurt’s British Bookshop, where I found a dusty pile of Winterson books that appeared to have been there since their respective publication dates. Boating for Beginners certainly must have been; it is out of print and only bookstores with lingering stock can get you a copy. I bought them all: The Passion, The Daylight Gate, and Lighthousekeeping. I like owning Winterson’s books on paper because she writes the kind of sentences I delight in re-reading. I like to take her books off of the shelves and let them fall open, re-reading whatever I find there. Hers is the kind of poetry I can fall in love with. Prose poetry. She also happens to be a master of first sentences.
First sentence of Lighthousekeeping:
“My mother called my Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.”
First two sentences of The Daylight Gate:
“The North is the dark place.
“It is not safe to be buried on the north side of the church and the North Door is the way of the Dead.”
Two Books in Two Days: Thoughts on The Daylight Gate and Lighthousekeeping
I started with The Daylight Gate. Winterson’s books tend to be short, the kind of thing you can read in one sitting, despite the fact that you want to read them slowly in order to savor the words. Based on a true story (Winterson explains what she based on fact and what she based on speculation in the forward), The Daylight Gate contains less of the magical writing I love her for, but just as much intriguing story and complex characterization. Magic is depicted as real, some of the time. Discrimination against women, poor women, smart women, women who refuse to do what they’re told is thoroughly, disgustingly illuminated. The mixture of history and magic, grim reality, fiction, and fancy makes for a beautiful if often horrifying read. (Warning: There is some gruesome torture that made me gasp aloud.)
Four out of five Dark Gentlemen.
The following evening I read Lighthousekeeping, which was being marketed at me from its back cover as a romance, which received the pink-and-purple-foil-cover treatment books by woman about love so often receive. It is a story about love, but more so it is a story about stories, about narrative control, about the realities behind the fictional constructs.
We meet Silver again and again throughout her life, but experience the narrative in a way she defines: only beginnings, never endings, “flashes across time.” We see her in the crooked house she lived in with her mother. We see her orphaned. We see her growing up on the stories of the blind lighthousekeeper who takes her in as an apprentice. We see her steal a book. Finally, we see the beginning of a love affair she has an adult. The whole remains illusory. But is there really a whole?
A psychiatrist diagnoses Silver with an unhealthy psychosis because she seeks meanings in stories, seeks to control the narrative of her life:
“‘An obsession with meaning, at the expense of the ordinary shape of life, might be understood as psychosis, yes.’
‘I do not accept that life has an ordinary shape, or that there is anything ordinary about life at all. We make it ordinary, but it is not.'” (195-196)
Silver, and all authors then, have a psychosis, har har. But Silver and all authors do not accept that life has an ordinary shape, and so they sculpt stories meant to show us all the things that life can be. It is a layered narrative that I am still dissecting weeks after finishing. It is a book full of quotations I revel in rereading over my morning coffee or just before going to sleep. It is nodding very loudly at the work Virginia Wolf.
Four out of five lighthousekeepers.
Neither book is quite perfect, but both are wonderful. Have you read any of Jeanette Winterson’s work? Did you fall for her as hard as I have?