This week I read my fifth and sixth Jeanette Winterson books. I have previously read Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Sexing the Cherry, The Passion, and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
Lighthousekeeping was given to me by a friend who left the country two years ago and had to leave a lot of books behind. I think I’d almost forgotten that it had belonged to her; at the time, I gladly absorbed them into my oversized library, desperate for anything to remember her by. I think I already knew it was unlikely that I would ever see her again. Ironic, then, that I had forgotten this one was hers until I stumbled across a note made in biro, several pages in.
I was captivated by this story from the first page. Winterson is a magical writer; her prose often feels to me like poetry that has been captured and tethered to the ground. Her words lift me up, a mass of balloons struggling into the sky. Her characters always feel like shades (of varying depths) of herself, and, at the same time, they feel like a shade of me. Perhaps it is her tendency to write in the first person, a skill which she has great mastery in. Either way, I usually identify very strongly with the narrator.
In this case, I couldn’t help constantly wondering how much my friend had identified with the main character. Every couple of chapters I would discover another scribbled note, or a scrap of paper or a receipt, left for me like clues. The notes quickly became very personal, and I realised that I was watching her last year of university being documented; more specifically, I was watching her fall in love with, and have her heart broken by, a boy in her class. Again.
It seemed almost silly and unimportant considering what came after: her disappearance from our lives, except for how strikingly, painfully honest some of the notes were. Here were things she had never said aloud, not even to me, but had buried them in this sad, broken love story. I had looked for one story and found two.
Perhaps I only enjoyed this story (enjoyed =/= was moved by) so much because of the nostalgia that became so tied into it. It has many parallels with my friend’s life and experiences that year, and I can see how she was moved to make these notes while reading it.
It reminded me that we had once talked about writing a book together, about her life and coming to England. I still feel like that book is living inside me and waiting. The story has changed; now it’s about me looking back, about me remembering what happened, maybe understanding her better, through reading this book that she gave me. I think that maybe I would like to try and write it though I am not sure where I begin.
Can you appropriate someone’s life that way for your own selfish expression? Is that not what we writers do constantly anyway? Someone recently said to me that you shouldn’t sleep with a writer unless you accept that they may (and probably will) write about you. I feel like this applies as much, if not more, to friends.