The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

The Lighthouse

Published: 2012 by Salt
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work

Memorable quote: “He feels again the tipping sensation he has experienced on and off since leaving the ferry. It feels like his soul is sliding out then sliding back in again. His insides feel like the jelly in his father’s hot pork pies oozing through the cracks in the crust”

It’s always good to see a book from a small independent publisher on the Man Booker shortlist, and despite its brevity this novel from Alison Moore carries some serious emotional weight. There’s no doubt that The Lighthouse is a cleverly composed book. Though set in the present, it’s really about a man who is tragically marooned in his own troubled past and just like its titular motif of the round tower – a beacon for passing ships – everything here is circular. The story concerns Futh, a middle aged man recently separated from his wife, who is heading to Germany for a walking holiday along the banks of the Rhine. Futh’s route begins and ends at the same guest house, run by Esther, whose marriage is also in ruins. Both Esther and Futh go about their daily lives almost mechanically, while at the same time retreating into and constantly replaying their memories of earlier days – gloomy recollections triggered by everyday tokens, sights and especially smells around them. Moore is a master of the slow reveal, and each time Futh revisits certain key incidents in his past – such as the Cornish holiday that sealed the fate of his parents’ separation – more details emerge,  like the beam of a lighthouse cutting through the fog.

“Do you ever get a bad feeling about something?” This question is voiced early on in the action; it’s a throwaway remark between two strangers struggling make conversation on a lurching ferry but it sums up neatly the tone of the whole novel. The chapters in The Lighthouse alternate between Futh and Esther, two troubled and troubling figures, and the sense of latent unease grows as Futh’s hike gradually propels him back towards Esther’s guest house. There is something quietly compelling about this chronicle of broken lives, and I found it hard to put this book down. But at the same time, for all the novel’s structure and symbolism impressed me, I couldn’t say it was an enjoyable read. Futh and Esther are both characters that it’s hard to like, and my reactions towards them swung between pity and revulsion.

The blurb emphasises this novel’s German holiday setting, but anyone who picked this up expecting some kind of scenic Rhineland travel narrative would be disappointed. Indeed, the sparsely described landscape never felt convincingly German to me –  although this, I’m sure, is the point, demonstrating the extent to which Futh is mired in his joyless past, rather than embracing the present. The Lighthouse is insightfully observed and, for a work that deals so singularly in circularity and repetition, it feels surprisingly fresh, but there’s no denying it’s a depressing read. I am frequently drawn to tragedies and dark literature but I’ll admit this one unsettled me, perhaps because of the sheer mundanity of its plot and characters. There seems very little hope in Futh’s claustrophobic, cyclic world.  The overall message here seems to be that broken families perpetuate themselves, and although the exact sequence of events in Moore’s ending is ambiguous, its calamitous tone was never in doubt.  The Lighthouse is an artfully observed,  impressively layered study of memory, of failure and of the sorts of inadequate lives that are more often overlooked. I am glad Moore wrote it, and that it has attracted such acclaim, but I was relieved too to turn the final page and leave Futh’s unsettling misery far behind.

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