Friday, April 12, 2013

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

I'm late to the party with reviewing Alison Moore's debut novel "The Lighthouse" which received so much praise last year and was shortlisted for the Booker. Not for any reason, as I've liked Alison's writing since first reading her in Nightjar Press's pamphlet series, but I've finally got round to it.

It's a short novel but in no way feels slight, its circular narrative reminding me a little bit of Sebald's circumnavigation in "The Rings of Saturn." In this novel Futh, a middle aged man with a Germanic surname, is going on a walking tour of the Rhine, catching a ferry over and having his bags transferred from guest house to guest house as he completes a lonely week's holiday. We meet Futh on the ferry over. He's middle aged, somewhat self-preoccupied and not very good with people. Moore has created a very believable protagonist, and throughout his journey we are given flashbacks of his life and its key moments. Bullied by his father after his mother left them (because she found her husband boring), his own childhood was a typically circumscribed one. Moore is brilliant at the deadness of so much suburban life, where, unable to leave the place you grew up, you can never get more than a few miles away from the people you were at school with or neighbours with. His best friend Kenny moves away when his parents split, and Kenny's mother becomes close to both Futh and his father. There is always an undertow of bleak sexual tension in this novel, as characters are unable to love or to hate properly, but are also unable to break away. This might sound dispiriting but it comes with such a layer of unrealised hope that one reads each short chapter almost breathless with the sadness of it all. Futh, a kindly man, wrecked in many ways by the circular nature of his life - from his broken home, to his now ended marriage - gives a fellow passenger a lift to Utrecht as its on his way. These brief encounters with strangers on the road give an added frisson to the novel, for one is never quite sure what will happen next. Futh travels with the suitcase he took on his disastrous honeymoon, a silver lighthouse-shaped perfume container that reminds him of his mother, and a packet of condoms that he knows will remain unused.

He remembers an earlier trip with his father - taken when Futh was twelve and his father was in his forties - and his memories of the different women that he picked up each night and shagged in the bathroom whilst his son tried to sleep in the hotel bedroom. Yet we are not totally enclosed with Futh's memories, for there is the parallel story of Ester, an ageing hotelier who sleeps with her guests in the hope of getting a response from her violent husband. Moore is brilliant on the accumulation of small details to sketch out believable lives, the switching back between present and past handled deftly. Her prose is forensic in its detail, unshowy, but never afraid to pull out and emphasise the symbolism that is at the novel's heart - whether its Futh's father's anecdotes about lighthouses or memories of watching movies and eating popcorn. Like "rosebud" in Citizen Kane, life is seen here as a tapestry of key memories. If there are the occasional missteps (Futh's father is a chemistry teacher so would he really be so disdainful of his son's job creating artificial scents?) they are so slight as to hardly matter. I believed in the whole cast of characters through a few deftly told details. Though, like a lot of contemporary novels, Moore shares with a sense of impending doom, there is no authorial withholding as there is in the first person narratives of "The Sense of an Ending" or "The Gathering", rather we are prompted to think that this apparently mundane holiday by a sad man in his fifties has meaning.

Whereas so many first novels show promise, "The Lighthouse" has rightly been lauded because it fulfils it. Saying anymore about the plot would be a terrible spoiler, but like previous reviewers, I can only say that its well worth your time - but short as the novel is, you'd do best to savour it.

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