I picked up this book based on the title – we were having a ‘lighthouse books‘ month in my book group – and because I haven’t read anything by Jeanette Winterson other than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. It’s the story of Silver, an orphan girl who is taken in by the ageless blind lighthousekeeper, known only as Pew. It’s also the story of Babel Dark, the long-dead son of the man who built the lighthouse. Robert Louis Stevenson appears briefly as one of the myriad of storytellers in this novel constructed from layers of stories, both literal and metaphorical.
As the narrative skips between past and present (as well as first, second and third person) the stories begin to illuminate and resonate with each other. If there is a flaw in the novel, it is that the different strands seem to unravel towards the end rather than tie up as some readers (myself included) may have preferred. However, this is clearly intentional and Winterson leaves us yearning for more fragments to fill the gaps.
I loved the evocative yet ambiguous names (Silver describes herself as “part precious metal, part pirate” yet the word silver carries a host of other connotations too) and the literary references – stories within stories about stories. Most of all I admired the lightness of Winterson’s writing. Aptly, her prose has the poetic quality associated with the oral tradition of storytelling. Of the many symbols in the novel, the sea and fossils are particularly important; both embody the transitory yet permanent nature of writing/storytelling as well as the contradictory desires for freedom and stability in Silver’s “wild” and “tame’ heart.
I suspect it’s a Marmite book but, though I hate that particular yeast-based spread, I would highly recommend it.