The Lighthouse is ostensibly the story of a walking holiday in Germany, a peripatetic mission of self-discovery and re-engagement with the world for Futh, our newly-separated hero – but very little in Alison Moore’s debut is, in reality, that simple. This is a tale awash with adultery, deception (self- and otherwise) and abandonment – the gamut, in fact, of inappropriate liaisons and relationships – all sugar-coated by a tender and beautiful prose style that makes the various revelations all the more shocking. But there’s nothing sensationalist about The Lighthouse. It’s a novel about dissatisfaction, loneliness, bad decisions, and how we (deliberately and inadvertently) re-enact the past and sabotage ourselves. But more than anything else, it’s a quietly sad and humane book.
It’s also a little hard to summarise. Kicked out by his wife, Angela, Futh takes the ferry to Europe, just as he did as a child with his father, after his mother (also called Angela) left them. The book’s got two parallel strands. In one, we follow Futh as he walks and rather obsessively recalls scenes from his past. His parents’ marriage and its breakdown, his father’s subsequent affairs, his own relationship with Angela, and his odd friendship with his neighbour, Kenny, and Kenny’s mother, Gloria, all unfold in a looping, repetitive and increasingly disturbing narrative that makes us reassess Futh’s reliability as a storyteller. In the other strand, Ester, the landlady of one of the hotels that Futh stays in on his journey, is marking time in an abusive marriage by seducing the hotel guests and recalling how she met her husband – the brother of her one-time fiancé. The two halves of the book come together at the very end, and I won’t give away the ending, but let’s just say that it’s a good one.
So what we have is a tight knot of repression and old hurt that unravels over a single week. And there’s very little respite. The semi-incestuous cluster of couplings that populate the book (again, no spoilers) are played out without undue drama or hysteria – Futh’s deadpan account of these relationships, in fact, would almost belie his intelligence as a narrator, if it weren’t for the subtle accretion of detail and repetition that ultimately reveal the extent of the mess and of his own lies. This is unreliable story-telling at its best, because Futh lies not to us – it’s not a first-person account – but to himself, denying, almost to the last, the nasty truths that have shaped his life and led him to his current situation – alone, blistered and friendless in a foreign country, with only a keepsake (a silver model of a lighthouse) from his long-gone mother as a comfort. Like all deliberately misleading narratives, it’s structurally complex, with constant, hurtling returns to the past, and Moore hooks the reader by repeating scenes and adding detail, digging ever closer to the ‘truth’ with each telling.
There are, of course, problems. I’m not sure the Cornwall scene (Futh’s primal scene, the end of his parents’ marriage) bears the weight of significance placed upon it by the text. The Futh narrative itself significantly outweighs the Ester narrative in terms of complexity and memorability, and the ultimate convergence of the two seems a little engineered – cued up heavily, as it is, with serendipitous coincidence: the characters’ attraction to perfume; the recurrence of violets and Venus flytraps; fraternal infidelity; references to illicit smoking; the lighthouse motif. Likewise, the use of Angela as the name of Futh’s mother and his wife is a little too obvious, though Futh’s fruitless hunt for a maternal figure is otherwise well-played and Angela’s impatience is impeccable. Moore’s skill at characterisation is generally admirable. Futh’s life, in its very banality, reveal the quiet misery of his existence. Denied a larger pet by Angela, he keeps stick insects – and now he can’t even get custody of them. On the ferry, he collects the complimentary items in his cabin – a biro, the UHT milk, a plastic cup – ‘and packs them in his overnight bag. He can make use of all these things in his new flat.’ Throughout the novel, the writer’s background in short-stories is evident in her deliberate, considered prose. In the first chapter: ‘His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding.’ Later:
‘He feels again the tipping sensation he has experienced on and off since leaving the ferry. It feels like his soul is sliding out and then sliding back in again. His insides feel like the jellies in his father’s hot pork pies oozing through cracks in the crust.’
Any Cop?: Yes. Very deservedly long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize – in a real coup for Moore’s publishers, the independent Salt – The Lighthouse has kept knocking about my head since I read it. Alison Moore is definitely one to watch.