Storytelling fiction – Housekeeping, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and Lighthousekeeping
(Disclaimer : The following comments are purely my own thought. No hard feelings intended. Criticism and opinions are always welcome.)
My experience with literature texts have been mixed so far, but if you like your literature books, it’s usually a treat to re-read them and rediscover the stories and characters you used to study, especially when you don’t feel like risking dissatisfaction with a new, ‘untried’ book. Some texts, like Tenessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, or certain poems like Muliebrity, Before the Sun and Rising Five, have stuck with me over the years, while others I try to un-remember. My latest prose texts were Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. Women’s literature isn’t my usual cup of tea and I approached these two books anticipating unending female rhapsodizing. On my first reading, I found Oranges a little too flighty and incongruous, but Housekeeping was surprisingly enjoyable. They both grew on me, or perhaps it is more fitting to say I grew into them, the way you grow into good books if you put in enough effort.
Housekeeping is intensely beautiful, expansive and intimate at once, with layer upon layer of texture and emotion in its prose. Ruth and Sylvie, restless and attuned as they are to the overlapping experiences of desire, loneliness and death, tell their stories the way the night sky or a sunset shares itself : simple yet brilliant, moving each person on a level where language becomes … indescribable.
“…I dreamed that the bridge was a chute into the lake and that, one after another, handsome trains slid into the water without even troubling the surface…I dreamed that Sylvie was teaching me to walk underwater. To move so slowly needed patience and grace, but she pulled me after her in the slowest waltz, and our clothes flew like the robes of painted angels.”
Oranges, on the other hand, is a quirky, skilful blend of allegory and comic realism that I had trouble understanding at first. After getting the hang of the patchwork narrative and the consistently incongruent nature of the text, however, I grew to love it in equal measure. The protagonist, named Jeanette, is an outcast amongst her peers and finds her strength in the Christian church and her mother – until both church and mother condemn Jeanette for homosexuality, punish Jeanette and her lover for their ‘unnatural passions’, and banish Jeanette from their midst. Betrayed by family and lover alike, Jeanette is forced to make her own way in life, questioning the unreasonable rigidity of religious and conventional norms.
“As it is, I can’t settle, I want someone who is fierce and will love me until death and know that love is as strong as death, and be on my side for ever and ever. I want someone who will destroy and be destroyed by me…Romantic love has been diluted into paperback form and has sold thousands and millions of copies. Somewhere is is still in the original, wirtten on tablets of stone. I would cross seas and suffer sunstroke and give away all I have, but not for a man, because they want to be the destroyer and never be destroyed. That is why they are unfit for romantic love. There are exceptions and I hope they are happy.”
And since I was in the mood for something humorous and thought provoking, I picked up another Jeanette Winterson novel : Lighthousekeeping. It resembles Housekeeping in more than just the title – both books are highly similar, from the themes of storytelling and the loaded literary references, to the technique of concurrent narratives, right down to the motifs of death, darkness, desire and memory.
“My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.
I have no father. There’s nothing unusual about that – even children who do have fathers are often surprised to see them. My own father came out of the sea and went back that way. He was crew on a fishing boat that harboured with us one night when the waves were crashing like dark glass.
His splintered hull shored him for long enough to drop anchor inside my mother.
Shoals of babies vied for life.
Lighthousekeeping starts off well, promising Winterson’s usual personal and irreverant style of narration. Silver is a familiar ingenue for Winterson’s readers (with the familiar unusual mother and dog), confronted too early with the death of her mother and her ‘destiny’ as a keeper of stories. Lighthousekeeping’s unwavering emphasis on storytelling, intially refreshing, soon becomes cloying, and I felt overwhelmed by the abundance of wordplay and aphorisms that prevents Silver from reaching her point. It feels like a writer’s indulgence. For me, the only redemption is Pew, the blind and eccentric old man who “tends the light” like a mother a child, and opens Silver to the world of light, night, and storytelling.