The Books: “Tanglewreck” (Jeanette Winterson)

Actually, this book is a book for kids – but in the interest of keeping an “author together” – I have shelved it with Winterson’s adult books. So:

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

Tanglewreck, by Jeanette Winterson.

This is Jeanette Winterson’s first book for kids.There is much here to praise – a fast-paced story, with time travel, and little kids on the run, and evil villains … A lot of it feels quite derivative, however. It’s obviously Winterson’s voice but unlike her other books – which I barely can compare to anything else – this is full of things that reminded me of other books. Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter … It doesn’t quite work. A great children’s book is also a great book for adults. I count something like Good Night Moon in that. There is such a thing as perfection – and it’s the same for kids as it is for adults. Good Night Moon wouldn’t hold up as an adult NOVEL, of course – but the standard of excellence is the same, as far as I’m concerned. Madeleine L’Engle said a great thing once: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” LOVE that. That’s why her books are so transportive. I never get sick of them. Tanglewreck is a wee bit too didactic … but in this case it feels sneaky, like Winterson is trying to sneak in a message in such a subtle way that the kids won’t be bored – but she’s trying to get her point across. I rolled my eyes at some of these. Winterson is a big environmentalist. Nothing wrong with that. But she tried to put that into the book … and again: nothing wrong with that, but it felt sneaky, like she was trying to get away with it, and I didn’t like that. Kids don’t like to be condescended to. If you have a message, then find an inventive way to weave it into the book so that it is inevitable, rather than snuck in. Compare that to Madeleine L’Engle’s Ring of Endless Light (excerpt here here) – perhaps my favorite of all of her books (I fluctuate) … and its vision of a summer working at a marine biology lab, and hanging out with dolphins – in captivity and also in the wild … The things learned about dolphins that summer transcend marine biology concerns, and makes the book about (on some level) the necessity of ongoing scientific research – that science that has a practical GOAL is not the only kind of science … There’s way more … but in general, it’s about the importance of dolphins, and how they should be protected, studied, loved, whatever. But do you ever catch Madeleine L’Engle trying to preach ANY of that to us? Do you ever catch her trying to sneak in her message, hoping we won’t notice? Or, no – it’s not “hoping we won’t notice” … Winterson tries to sneak in her message hoping it will work on the kids in a subconscious way … that the kids will be swayed to her point of view through osmosis. Something about that did not sit well with me, reading Tanglewreck. It is obvious L’Engle’s love for dolphins, and her belief that preserving dolphins, and studying them, and protecting them, should be a priority. But she only does that through telling the story of Vicky and Adam working in the lab. L’Engle isn’t trying to sneak anything past us! Winterson also assumes that her audience will all feel the same way about America, so her main villain is American, a representative of a huge multi-national corporation, and the most ambitious person in the galaxy. Winterson relies on a shorthand here (American = bad, not to be trusted) that feels very “right now” to me. Yeah, I know, the world has always hated us (but whatever, when you all want to escape the tyranny in your own lands, where do you go?? Yeah. I thought so.) Back to my point: I know “anti-Americanism” is nothing new. I mean, if you go back and read some of the things George III said about us, way back when, when the US was first starting out, you can see the contempt. Nothing has changed. It’s been there since the beginning for us. (So to imagine we could “go back” to a time when we were universally admired … Yeah, uhm, so when would that be? Learn your history, people.) But a children’s book needs to be, on some level, universal. If you want kids to read it not just in this generation but others. I can feel the world of 2006 and 2007 in Tanglewreck, even though that’s not what it’s about at all. I can feel the global warming debate, I can feel the Iraq war, I can feel the anger at America’s power, I can feel the “green” movement … all in a book that has nothing to do with any of that. I guess what I’m saying is: Winterson is not at the top of her game here. Frankly, I don’t think she would have tried to “get away” with any of this if it were a book for adults – and THAT is why the book sometimes feels condescending. Winterson has NEVER come across as didactic to me … she’s too much of a free spirit. But here she does.

However, on the flip side: The classic Winterson imagination is at work here, and I very much liked the weaving of truth with fantasy. Like, we’re in this magical story where “Time Tornadoes” have sprouted up all over England, ripping people into the past, future, whatever …but there are certain things that still ground us to reality. I liked that.

Silver lives in a big 500 year old house called Tanglewreck. Her parents and little sister disappeared one day. She now lives with an evil aunt, who stays with her at Tanglewreck, and doesn’t take good care of Silver at all. Silver has to fend for herself. She loves her house, it feels alive to her. These Time Tornadoes start to swoop through London, and suddenly, things start to shift and change. A man named Abel Darkwater shows up at Tanglewreck, talking about a specific clock that was left in her parents hands – an essential clock called The Timekeeper … Mr. Darkwater, a clock fanatic, and an ambitious man, knows that whoever has this Timekeeper will control Time. Something has happened to disturb Time. Huge forces begin to converge on Tanglewreck … there is a Timekeeper hidden there … it goes back centuries … and Silver needs to hand it over. Silver has no memory of any Timekeeper. She is 11 years old. Just a kid. Abel Darkwater takes her to his house in London, but she escapes – and eventually joins up with a tribe of people who live in the tunnels beneath the city … They call themselves “The Throwbacks”. For whatever reason, they are immortal. Time has somehow “forgot” them … most of them were inmates in Bedlam, the famous mental hospital of old in London, and are scarred forever by the experience. Turns out Abel Darkwater, too, is immortal … and his connection with the Throwbacks is an unhappy one, and goes way back. But they save Silver – and they realize the urgency of keeping the Timekeeper out of Abel Darkwater’s hands … and so begins a chase – not just across England but across the galaxy … to, first of all, find the Timekeeper, and to then hide it from people who would use it for ill.

It’s a quick read. The slight annoyances didn’t stop me from enjoying it. It just didn’t have that “oomph” that great children’s books need to have. I guess I felt a bit of distance from it. It feels like a lot of Winterson’s other intellectual exercises … ruminations on quantum physics and Schrodinger’s cat and Einstein … all fascinating stuff, and I ate it up here … but I do wonder if a kid would be bored by it all.

Just to prove my point from yesterday about some of her more rabid fans: One of the reviews on Amazon (I think for the British version of the book) states that she feels she knows Winterson so well that “if we were to meet we would be on a first-name basis”. Okay. First creepy clue. Then she goes on to list her problems with the book (and many of them were my problems as well) – but finally she is MOST disappointed in the fact that Silver, an 11 year old girl, appears to “fall in love” with Gabriel, a young Throwback BOY … and that particular reader was SO disappointed that Winterson chose to have it be a heterosexual thing and missed an opportunity “to teach kids it’s okay to be gay.” Oh, great: let’s add one MORE didactic message to the book! Why are you looking to Winterson, an artist, to “teach kids it’s okay to be gay”?? In a book that has nothing to do with that? Winterson struggles with that kind of thing – people expect her to be a mouthpiece for them, rather than herself. Tanglewreck has no obligation to be anything other than itself. To look for it to show “kids it’s okay to be gay” when … it has nothing to do with that, you would never put such a pressure onto another writer – you only put the pressure on Winterson because she is gay – but that’s the kind of narrow-minded thinking Winterson has always fought against. Do NOT label her as a gay writer. Or, whatever, go ahead and label her – but just know: that by labeling her, you limit her. It reminds me of Ted’s story about directing Virginia in Chicago and being told on a radio interview that he wasn’t qualified to direct a play about Virginia Woolf because he was a man. It also reminds me of the recent (and ongoing) kerfluffle between Clint Eastwood and Spike Lee about Eastwood’s film about Charlie Parker and how Spike Lee thinks only a black man should have directed that film. Clint Eastwood was like, “But nobody else did it! I did! Get over yourself.” I like Spike Lee a lot, but that kind of nonsense is … well, nonsense. This is a level of art that I cannot stand. Where group identity politics trumps artistic considerations and imagination. Oh, so only a deaf actor can play someone who is deaf? Personal experience trumps imagination? Well, sorry, but that goes against everything I believe in. You don’t need to be a prince to be able to imagine yourself into Hamlet – and to put that kind of literal consideration onto any artist is fucking stupid. Winterson is gay – therefore she can only write about gay things? How boring! Thank God Winterson appears to be easily bored, and continues to try new things, not listening to those who need her to be some posterchild for gay rights. Winterson obviously, with Tanglewreck, wanted to write a story about the things that interest her (and always have): quantum mechanics, space, transformation, alchemy … To read her book and be disappointed that it doesn’t have a gay person in it, is to be moronic. It makes me sad. It makes me hope that Winterson just keeps on keeping on … writing what SHE wants to write. Every book may not be successful – and that’s, actually, one of the most interesting things about Winterson. Even her failures are interesting. She does not play it safe. Or – no, that’s not right. I feel she DID play it safe in books like Gut Symmetries (excerpt here) and The PowerBook (excerpt here) – same ol’ same ol’. I suppose the fans who only want one thing out of her were tremendously pleased by those books. Those books validate THEM. I don’t look for Winterson to validate me. I want her to follow her star, and I will always be right behind. Wherever she goes. When she plays it safe, she gets boring. So when she tries something new (Art & Lies (excerpt here), Tanglewreck) – sometimes it doesn’t completely work – but I find that just as fascinating, and admirable. It takes guts to fail. It takes guts to put yourself out there, to know you might be out of your element … but to understand that being out of your element is exactly where you need to be. To quote Winterson herself: “What you risk reveals what you value.” And then, sometimes, she takes a risk (like with Weight – her story of Atlas and Heracles – excerpt here) – and she triumphs. That’s what’s exciting. Not to mention the fact that her first three books – Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (excerpt here), Sexing the Cherry (excerpt here) and The Passion (excerpt here) – are all HUGE risks … and she knocked them out of the park. So keep taking risks, Winterson. Keep trying to please yourself – not those who have something specific they need of you … and I’ll always be a reader.

Well, I’ll always be a reader, regardless. I’m no fair-weather fan! And I suppose – like the woman on Amazon – I have certain “needs” of Winterson, too. I am always curious as to what the hell she is getting up to (she has a new book out – The Stone Gods – a sci-fi book, and I haven’t read it yet … I’m not a big sci-fi fan, but I can’t wait to read it … just to see what she’s doing) … and I hope that my expectations of her are not unfair, or limiting. I know when I’m bored, and I trust that response … but I also know that Winterson is a wild card. She’s made her name on being unpredictable. I’m a fan for life, that’s just the way it goes.

So although Tanglewreck is not quite a success, I do admire it because of the risk she took in writing it. She had to know people would be displeased. She wrote it anyway. Awesome! It is only by doing what she wants to do … that she will continue to grow and flourish as an artist. She has the money. Her books are huge successes. She can please herself. That’s what I like about following her career. I never know where she will go next.

Here’s a section where Silver sits in the tunnels beneath London with the tribe called The Throwbacks. She is on the run from Abel Darkwater.

EXCERPT FROM Tanglewreck, by Jeanette Winterson.

Gabriel began to teach Silver how to find her way through the labyrinths, and where to come Upground. They told each other stories about their lives, and Silver promised Gabriel that whatever happened, one day she would take him to Tanglewreck.

‘I should be glad to see the place that you love,’ said Gabriel. ‘Nothing matters but those things that matter, Micah says.’

And Silver thought she understood.

In the timeless, ageless space of the Throwbacks, Silver felt happy again, happier than she had been for years. She remembered that with her parents and Buddleia at Tanglewreck, every day had stretched into every day, and she had been free, just like this. She started to sleep on her back, instead of curled up in a ball. She had no sense of how much time was passing – perhaps all of it. Perhaps none.

One day, finding Micah on his own in the Chamber, smoking his pipe, she asked him what he had meant by the ‘Experiments’. His face grew dark.

‘They be alchemists – him and Maria Prophetessa.’

‘That’s the beautiful woman called Regalia Mason?’


‘Is an alchemist a sort of magician?’

‘Yea, in sort.’

And Micah explained how hundreds of years ago, science and magic were nearly the same thing. Nobody studied physics or chemistry, they studied mathematics or astronomy, and they studied alchemy. Astronomers were also astrologers, who predicted what would happen by measuring the movement of the stars. Even Isaac Newton, who studied mathematics, and discovered gravity, was an astrologer.

‘And Isaac Newton, he be a member of a secret society called Tempus Fugit.’

‘Time Flies!’ said Silver. ‘Abel Darkwater’s shop!’

‘Yea,’ said Micah. ‘Many of the alchemists spent all their lives labouring to turn metal into gold, but some, like Isaac Newton, and Abel Darkwater, and Maria Prophetessa, and a very powerful magician called John Deem they laboured to make Time.’

‘You can’t make TIme,’ said Silver, thinking, even as she said it, how grown-ups were always saying they had to make time, usually for their children.

‘ ‘Tis why he be alive and not dead in the earth,’ said Micah.

‘But you are all alive too,’ said Silver.

‘Yea,’ said Micah. ‘He experimented on us in the lunatic asylum in ways that would curdle your heart, but when we escaped we discovered that we be not dying as Updwellers do. Have you not noticed something about Abel Darkwater?’

Silver thought about his marble eyes, his round body, his shadowy face …

‘He be like us who don’t want the light. If our kind do go in the light, as Updwellers do, we die. Abel Darkwater is cleverer than we; he don’t die in the light, but he can’t be in the light for long. The dark slows death down, like hibernation. Like animals who sleep all winter.’

‘What else slows it down?’ asked Silver.

‘Cold,’ said Micah. ‘You put a piece of meat in your cold safes – fridges, you call them. Yea, in the cold safe it does not decay. In the sun it decays.’

‘Dark and cold,’ said Silver.

‘Yea,’ said Micah. ‘Dark and cold. Come.’

Micah hoisted Silver up on to the warm shaggy back of a bog pony and led her through a short maze of tunnels.

Silver hung on to the pony’s thick mane, and felt his warmth on her fingers. Now she understood why Abel Darkwater’s house was so cold. It wasn’t because it was an old house like Tanglewreck; it was to keep him alive. That was why he had no electric lights, and that was why Mrs Rokabye complained a lot, even for her. Silver didn’t feel the cold much. They had hardly any heat or electricity at Tanglewreck because their parents couldn’t afford it. Only Mrs Rokabye had electric fires and electric blankets, and even an electric headscarf that she wore in the winter.

‘Behold!’ said Micah.

They had come to a round corral where half a dozen cattle were contentedly munching hay. The temperature was freezing, and a haze of cold hung over the cows.

Silver shivered and wrapped her legs round the pony. She looked up and saw that the opaque natural light and the steaming cold were coming from a perfectly round sheet of what looked like frosted glass. But it was perhaps fifty metres in diameter.

‘In thine own world that be an ice-skating pond,’ said Micah. ‘A great marvel, for it remains frozen the whole of the year, and through your four season.’

‘It’s an ice-rink,’ said Silver.

‘We depend on it for our cattle. These cattle be bred by Abel Darkwater in 1805. We keep them in calf for milk, and we eat the calves for meat.’

‘When will they die?’ asked Silver.

‘I know not. None of us knows when we shall die. But that is true of thine own world too.’

Silver and Micah made their way back to the Chamber.

‘Why are you still afraid of Abel Darkwater?’ said Silver.

‘For the chains and the beatings and the blood-lettings and the faintings, and the dissections and anatomies he performed, and the great cold he kept us in, and the darkness where we dwelled before we be made different by him and her, and that he was my Master. He could destroy us still. He does not destroy us for reasons of his own, but I know them not.’

‘Why does he want the Timekeeper?’

Micah stopped as he was walking. ‘Abel Darkwater never must find the Timekeeper. If truly you know where it be …’

‘I don’t know where it be, I mean, where it is,’ said Silver.

‘He must not become Lord of the Universe, for that is his wish, and his many lifetimes’ work,’ said Micah, his face grave.

‘How can we stop him?’ asked Silver.

‘He cannot do it without the clock.’

‘But he says I will lead him to the clock.’

Micah was silent. ‘It may be that you must dwell with us for the remainder of your days.’

Silver gasped at this. ‘What, and never see Tanglewreck again?’

‘It may be. If you be the Keeper of the Clock, it be your duty to keep it safe.’


‘That may be the means of keeping it safe,’ said Micah.

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2 Responses to The Books: “Tanglewreck” (Jeanette Winterson)

  1. ted says:

    How have I never even heard of this novel? I have to find a copy! Love the flow of your thoughts on it.

  2. red says:

    Ted – It kind of flew under the radar because it wasn’t an adult book, which I think is a shame.

    I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on it!

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