Jeanette Winterson: Tanglewreck
By Jeanette Winterson
Bloomsbury, 416 pages, $14.95
Jeanette Winterson is a writer many of us had been hoping our children would grow up to read. She has just sliced a significant number of years off the wait by writing Tanglewreck, a novel children ages 9 and upward will actually want to read. (Precocious children between 6 and 9, fond of rabbits and woolly mammoths, will also get plenty out of it.)
Since, at the age of 23, she burst into the British literary asteroid belt (a predisposition to ducking is useful as literary spats are as stable as Christmas fruitcake) with Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, she’s had her ups — eight novels — and dips — a frosty five-year-period of media dust-ups, where she was a bit of a scrapper, admitting in retrospect she should have sewn her mouth shut. I’ve always admired her bravery and the control she exerted over her prose, even when she was clearly having the odd unexplained ding in orbit. Language is her insulin: She has always taken her work and her readers very seriously.
Tanglewreck is a vibrant book that will ignite children’s interest in science because it lifts scientific theory and modern physics playfully out of the usual textbook situation and boldly skateboards them through a yarn that will appeal equally to boys and girls, science lovers or otherwise.The novel suffers somewhat from being overpopulated with characters, but there is enough variety in them, their situations and the historical settings that you would have to have extremely low blood pressure not to be taken up by some of them. Who can resist a rabbit called Bigamist?
Time is misbehaving. Time has gone completely nuts. The world is experiencing Time Tornados, which whirl people from the present to other time periods. The only thing that can control and conquer time is the errant, ancient watch, the Timekeeper.Silver, an orphan (no child can seem to make it through 400 pages with parents to navigate), lives in a sprawling and, by all accounts, communicative old house, Tanglewreck, with the less than nobly intentioned Mrs. Rockabye. Abel Darkwater, a menacing watch trader, is in league with her, trying to get his mucky paws on the Timekeeper, and they expect innocent and temperate Silver to lead them to it.En route, Silver meets far too many people to list here, but they’re mostly being impacted by, or navigating, or taking advantage of Time’s present hiccups, like evil Regalia Mason, an almost-oil-baroness type, who is transfusing time from people who have too much of it and selling it to people who don’t have enough. Mason and her company, Quanta, are keen to control time and privatize it.For the most part, Winterson’s style and witty material make the transition to younger readers remarkably well, but with a literary venture this rapid and ambitious, aspects do give way. While it’s an exciting rip through history, time and the universe, there’s a certain amount of whiplash in the process. Recurrent periods of dizziness set in around the 270-page mark, when I longed to get off the Einstein line and get stuck down a nice calm tunnel with the big-eared hobbity people, the Throwbacks. Sometimes, you just feel like you’re getting the jacket on a character mentally, and wham, the arms are gone out of the sleeves.Overall, Winterson is stronger, or more comfortable, on the past and the future than the present. There’s a certain forcedness to her take on anything contemporary. It’s evident in her dialogue, too, her cockney thugs or the more “street” characters slide a little close to daftness and a touch of Ali G, while her invented dialect and cadence for the ancient, underground-dwelling Throwbacks never goes out of tune. Creations like Elvis the robot dog, the fridge that beeps to tell you when you are out of milk, petrol ponies (motorbikes) and the Annometer (tells whether time is slipping) are the hard work of an unflagging imagination which will improve the family blood circulation on reading.
In Silver, the main gal, Winterson succeeds in creating a quiet, thoughtful character. The biggest challenge Silver has is not finding the Timekeeper, however, but surviving the din going on around her in this novel, for she is almost gobbled up by it all. At a certain point, you have to try remind yourself, whose story exactly is this? You close the book for a pause and find you can barely recall anything about her.
Other important, central characters struggle, too, with their centre of gravity. Due to this rocky unevenness, Regalia Mason feels so one-dimensional she’s practically brittle. This gives rise to another dilemma: Some of the science feels like Winterson is enjoying telling it more than that it truly has a place in the story. She has a tendency to be a tad didactic, which results in her telling children what they should think about certain characters, rather than depicting a character so rounded that the children will make up their own minds and get exactly what she’s driving at. Sometimes, Winterson just says too much.
Perhaps she felt she had to gallop in order not to lose this iPod-listening, techno-savvy generation, and she could be correct. But a gallop is not necessarily her strength; she’s a writer you’d rather sit and simmer with, even at the age of 9. If she’d lowered the Bunsen burner and stuck more with what she does so very well — i.e. language, underground hobbity people, talking houses and woolly mammoths — she’d have a more lasting legacy for her book.
If it takes a gallop to get children on her bus, so be it, for this book will give children the taste and the tools to hunger for complicated narratives, and will remove any fear of the archaic being dull. We may understand the joy and love with which Winterson infused every page of this novel, but unfortunately, we do not always fully comprehend its purpose.