By Jeanette Winterson
Harcourt, 232 pp., $23
''A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story," says Silver, the narrator of Jeanette Winterson's ambitiously brainy new novel, ''Lighthousekeeping." ''But I have difficulty with that method."
Silver could be speaking of her creator too, who in the past decade has anxiously pushed the limits of the novel more than any other living novelist. ''The Passion" leapfrogged across time periods on its way to telling a fabulous story about the backlash of cruelty in even the finest ardor; her previous novel, ''The Powerbook," adopted a similar narrative design, recasting Virginia Woolf's ''Orlando" in the present day, using the transformation of her protagonist's sex as an excuse to examine the politics of storytelling.
Woolf's penumbra looms over Winterson's newest effort as well, only this time the book at hand is ''To the Lighthouse." While that novel involves a brooding English family whose members talk constantly of an outing they will never take, Winterson's features a cast of characters equally unable to commit to a journey -- only their journey is through stories.
Our heroine is Silver, an orphan raised by a blind lighthouse keeper named Pew. Each day, Silver makes him tea, watches him tend the light, and, most important, listens to his stories. These afternoon yarns usually involve one of three subjects: the lighthouse's original owner, Josiah Dark; his son Babel Dark; and Pew or his ancestors, who have been keeping the lighthouse's flame since the middle 1800s.
Like all blind characters in books, Pew is a seer of sorts (and he's as mysterious about his age as Elizabeth Taylor). The stories he tells of the lighthouse, especially those of Babel Dark, are Silver's true apprenticeship. They point toward an emotional kind of lighthouse-keeping -- of tending one's own light, and sending it out in spite of the darkness that surrounds.
If this sounds a little drippy and romantic, well, it is. On one level, Winterson has taken the least subtle symbolic imagery of a lighthouse and blown it up into a plotline. Silver needs to stop reflecting the world and understand; she has to look within, find her story, and tell it in as many variations as she can possibly find -- shine it out into the world.
There is something both heartbreakingly earnest and dangerously close to sentimentality about this idea. Even Winterson, who has a kind of sorcerer's grip on her prose, cannot fully control the cliches it unleashes.
''I don't think of love as a force of nature," Silver says later in the book, when she is an adult and has known heartbreak. ''As strong as the sun, as necessary, as impersonal, as gigantic, as impossible, as scorching as it is warming, as drought-making as it is life-giving. And when it burns out, the planet dies."
For every overblown Hallmark moment like this, there are four or five others in ''Lighthousekeeping" that have a haunting mystery to them. Early in the novel, for example, Silver beds down in a home not her own and feels dejectedly alone, destitute even. But then suddenly out of this sad situation comes hope. ''We are lucky, even the worst of us," she says, ''because daylight comes."
Narrative's power to let us begin again is a theme ''Lighthousekeeping" returns to time and again. One of the ongoing cautionary stories Pew tells Silver is how Babel Dark forsook his true love for a life of duty and penance. He moves to an island, marries, has a child, and works as a minister.
Eventually, however, Dark cracks and meets his true love, Molly, in London. After that he goes to see her twice a year, like Persephone surfacing from the underworld. This myth is just one of many classical stories that ''Lighthousekeeping" sweeps its gaze briefly over. Others include Tristram and Isolde, Samson and Delilah, and Robert Louis Stevenson's ''Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
Winterson no doubt invokes these archetypal stories to reflect the way that betrayal continually surfaces in stories. And it is a great part of Babel Dark's own emotional legacy, too: Even the suspicion of betrayal is reason enough for him to relinquish his true love for a life of more measured emotions.
In giving Silver this tale as her founding myth, Pew challenges her to believe in love, to write a story in which betrayal can be overcome. It's a hopeful story, and Winterson could have simply offered up a tale in which duplicity does not occur. But one imagines that she would regard that as duplicity itself. Besides, that would be doing things the easy way, and what makes Winterson so exciting to read is that she has never, ever done that.
John Freeman is a writer in New York.