As is often the case with Virginia Woolf’s books, whenever I attempt to write a review I find myself at a complete loss for words. This is mostly because after reading her work I become aware of just how stunningly not eloquent, not talented, and friggin’ pedestrian I am. No one else can write like Woolf, and no one should try, so I’m certainly not going to.
The second reason is that reviewing a book often means summarizing the plot, which in Woolf’s case is useless. Were I to describe the plot of To the Lighthouse, I would probably end up with something like this (imagine lots of “um”s and confused pauses every few words): There’s a large family who lives on an island, and one of the kids always wants to visit the lighthouse, but the parents keep putting it off. Also there are boarders living in the house, and we get to be inside the different characters’ heads while they go about their business. Then some of them die.
See how pitiful that is? I can’t convey how Woolf makes this story so amazing unordinary, and beautiful, so as usual I’m resorting to my tactic of quoting the book at ridiculous length.
“For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is ranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.”
“Instantly, Mrs. Ramsay seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself, so that she had only strength enough to move her finger, in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion, across the page of Grimm’s fairy story, while there throbbed through her, like of the pulse in a spring which has expanded to its full width and now gently ceases to beat, the rapture of successful creation.”
“What passes for cookery in England is an abomination (they agreed). It is putting cabbages in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off the delicious skins of vegetables.”
“So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood, the profusion of darkness which, creeping in at keyholes and crevices, stole round window blinds, came into bedrooms, swallowed up here a jug and basin, there a bowl of red and yellow dahlias, there the sharp edges and firm bulk of a chest of drawers. Not only was furniture confounded; there was scarcely anything left of body or mind by which one could say ‘This is he’ or ‘This is she.’ Sometimes a hand was raised as if to clutch something or ward off something, or somebody groaned, or somebody laughed aloud as if sharing a joke with nothingness.”
“The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain pipes and scatter damp paths. Also the sea tosses itself and and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.
[Mr. Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.]“
Verdict: four out of five stars