An extraordinary, lyrical book that is about the power of storytelling in - and about - our lives.
Other themes are light/dark/blindness (literal and metaphorical), outcasts, and the contrast between permanence and immobility (symbolised by the lighthouse) and change (people and the sea).
The fictional characters (one of whom has strong parallels with Winterson - see below) have some interaction with real characters and their works (Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson and Wagner), and a broadly realistic story is sprinkled with slightly fairytale-like qualities, especially at the start, which also has comical aspects! Yet somehow, Winterson conjures this odd medley into something coherent, beautiful and profound.
There are two main narrative strands, both set in the small and remote Scottish village of Salts, and its lighthouse: mysterious Victorian priest, Babel Dark, and Silver, a girl orphaned in 1969.
Silver is the narrator, and the opening chapters reminded me of a Roald Dahl's children's story: she and her shamed mother live outside the village, in a house cut into the hill such that it has a sloping floor, furniture has to be nailed down, they can only "eat food that stuck to the plate", and their dog has developed back legs shorter than the front.
A tragi-comic accident leaves Silver an orphan. After a short spell with a Dahlian spinster, she goes to live with Pew the blind lighthousekeeper, and the book loses the comedy, but retains some magic. "Some of the light went out of me, it seemed proper that I should go and live in a place where all the light shone outwards."
NARRATIVE STRUCTURE, STORIES, STORYTELLING
Don't expect a single, linear narrative of a consistent style. "A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method." It doesn't matter because "The continuous narrative of existence is a lie... there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark."
Pew is a master storyteller, and Silver weaves his stories into the one she is telling. The boundaries of fact and fiction are often blurred within her world (as in this book itself, with its mention of real historical figures): Pew will describe doing something that happened before he was born, and when challenged, dismisses it as his second sight or "well, the Pew that was born then", whilst retaining the suggestion that in some mysterious way it was actually him.
Perhaps part of the reasons for Silver's blending of fact and fiction was prompted by this: a psychiatrist defines psychosis as being out of touch with reality, and her response is "Since then, I have been trying to find out what reality is, so that I can touch it."
The musings on stories are the most lyrical and magical aspects, and suggest the tangled ways in which they thread through our lives. "In fairy stories, naming is knowledge" and that is reflected in this story in several key ways.
Most stories never finish, "There was an ending - there always is - but the story went on past the ending - it always does". Similarly, "There's no story that's the start of itself, any more than a child comes into the world without parents."
"All the stories must be told... Maybe all stories are worth hearing, but not all stories are worth telling... The stories themselves make the meaning."
If you had forty minutes to tell your life story, what would you say? (This isn't a long book, but there's more than forty minutes' worth.)
The final chapters are more overtly philosophical, with less actual story. I think they're none the worse for that, but some may be disconcerted by the chane.
SILVER AS WINTERSON?
Winterson's first book, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), was explicitly a fictionalised version of her childhood, and recently, she published the more factual "Why be Happy when you Could be Normal?" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), but there are many aspects of Winterson in this as well: an orphan born in 1959, who finds solace in stories and libraries, "had to grow up on my own", and forges her own life. Some of the problems Silver encounters in later life also echo Winterson's own [(e.g. consultations with mental health professionals)(hide spoiler)]. She also finds the positive in the hardest circumstances, "We are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes" (in "Why be Happy", she is grateful that the church taught her how important it is to concentrate on good things).
It goes further: the beloved mother in this "longed for me to be free, and did everything she could to make sure it never happened", and in "Why be happy", she makes an identical observation about the awful Mrs W (quoted in my review, linked above).
For such a carefully crafted book, it is a little heavy-handed at times. These are minor faults in the overall context and content and are recorded here more for my personal records than to spoil it for anyone else, hence the spoiler tag.
[In particular, the names Dark and Lux are as subtle as a sledgehammer. Also, the symbolism of the lighthouse is occasionally spelt out more than it needs to be: a birth coinciding with completion of this phallic symbol, and a passage, "He was like this lighthouse... He was lonely and aloof... The instruments were in place... but the light was not lit." (hide spoiler)]
QUOTATIONS AND NEW IDIOMS
* "A silent, taciturn clamp of a man."
* "She was one of those people for whom yes is always an admission of guilt or failure. No was power."
* "I was not much longer than my socks."
* "The wind was strong enough to blow the fins off a fish."
* "Our business was light, be we lived in darkness... The darkness had to be brushed away... Darkness squatted on the chairs and hung like a curtain across the stairway... I learned to see in it, I learned to see through it, and I learned to see the darkness of my own."
* "As dull as a day at sea with no wind."
* "Someone whose nature was as unmiraculous as a bucket."
* "He turned as pale as a skinned plaice."
* "The fossil record is always there, whether or not you discover it. The brittle ghosts of the past. Memory is not like the surface of water - either troubled or still. Memory is layered."
* When contemplating writing Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson posits (in this book) that all men have atavistic qualities: "Parts of themselves that lay like developed negatives? Shadow selves, unpictured but present?"
* "Women raising empty forks to glossy famished lips".
* "The light was as intense as a love affair."
* "I went outside, tripping over slabs of sunshine the size of towns. The sun was like a crowd of people, it was a party, it was music. The sun was blaring through the walls of the houses and beating down the steps. The sun was drumming time into the stone. The sun was rhythming the day."