Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Lighthouse: Alison Moore

It's good to see a small press like Salt up there with the juggernauts, and good to see a debut author in the Booker Prize shortlists.  I'm a great fan of Salt, which publishes some quality writing - short fiction and poetry - so I pounced on this novel straight away.  It's short, under 200 pages, so makes a change from the bloated tomes around at the moment.

The central character of The Lighthouse, Futh, whose grandparents were German, is setting out on a walking holiday in Germany after his wife has left him.  The breakdown of his marriage, slowly revealed through the pages of the novel, parallels the failure of his own parents' relationship which culminated in his mother leaving both of them, without ever making contact again.  Futh is clearly emotionally damaged by this.  His wife has the same name as his mother - 'Angela' - and is prone to telling him "I'm not your mother!"

The novel is as tightly structured as a poem - returning neatly to  its starting point - as circular as the walk Futh is embarking on. There is a strong sense of foreboding, as Futh is befriended by an odd man on the ferry who hitches a lift part of the way and insists on inviting Futh to his mother's house.

At the first hotel Futh meets Ester, a sexually predatory, middle-aged woman with a violent husband.  He barely exchanges a word with her, but something inevitable begins to unfold that involves all the characters.  Margaret Drabble described the book as  'A serious novel with a distinctive and unsettling atmosphere', and it is.

The Lighthouse of the title is a metaphor - central to the novel, but it is also the name of the hotel 'Hellhaus', and the silver casing of Futh's mother's perfume vial which he carries with him like talisman.   Some have criticised the novel for being a bit heavy-handed with metaphors and symbols - too structured in the parallels it creates, but I didn't mind that.  The mechanisms made it feel like a long short story, and - as Nicholas Royle had a hand in the editing - that shouldn't be a surprise.

The writing is clean and spare - not a word too many and the characters are drawn with considerable complexity.  Ester could simply have been a blowsy blonde and Futh a boring sociopath, but they weren't.  Even if the Lighthouse doesn't win the Booker Prize, Alison Moore is an author to watch.  I gave it four stars on Goodreads, not five because it didn't have that 'wow' factor for me - I admired it, a lot, but I didn't love it.

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