Jeanette Winterson's latest novel, "Lighthousekeeping," is full of echoes and ripples. It evokes the spirit of Virginia Woolf, recalling "The Waves" and...

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by Jeanette Winterson

Harcourt, 232 pp., $23

Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel, “Lighthousekeeping,” is full of echoes and ripples. It evokes the spirit of Virginia Woolf, recalling “The Waves” and “To The Lighthouse.” It refers to Robert Louis Stevenson, to Charles Darwin, to “Death in Venice.” The writing is dreamy and romantic, vintage Winterson, woven out of equal parts bitter tragedy and happy ending — as you might expect from a book that reminds you, under dueling epigraphs, to “remember you must die,” and “remember you must live.”

What “Lighthousekeeping” doesn’t do is keep a firm hold on the reader’s imagination. Slim as this novel is, it’s weighed down heavily with plot. An orphaned young girl named Silver grows up in a lighthouse on the rugged coast of Scotland, under the care of the blind lighthousekeeper Pew. (Winterson delights here in coy word games about light and dark, real and emotional blindness.)

Parallel to Silver’s life with Pew, which takes place somewhere in the vague not-too-distant past, unfolds the story of the doomed Babel Dark, a man whose secret inner life tears him apart. Dark is a 19th-century clergyman, trapped by guilt and shame; he is unable to acknowledge the woman he loves and driven to perverse cruelties.

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Winterson moves back and forth between the stories of Silver and Babel Dark without ever building much momentum. Neither side of the picture feels completely imagined. When Silver approaches something like adulthood and is evicted, along with Pew, from the lighthouse (which won’t be run by people any more, but by computers), her story loses steam altogether.

Winterson has never been one for conventional narratives, but in the past, when her novels have worked, they’ve worked on the strength of the compelling stories she sketched along a perimeter: in the center were riveting characters, realized with virtuoso skill and passion.

“Lighthousekeeping” isn’t a novel to dismiss, but it doesn’t have the power of Winterson’s best work. Some of the writing is elegantly poetic; sometimes the light shines through these odd characters. But most of the time they don’t feel fully illuminated, and their stories, shifting in and out of focus as they do, never seem to matter quite as much as they should.