Book Review | The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

Rose Lapira finds plenty to praise in this brief and affecting Booker-longlisted work which zooms in on the complicated web of emotions sparked off by memories.

Alison Moore's 'deceptively simple', brief novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.
Alison Moore's 'deceptively simple', brief novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year.

As predicted, this year's Man Booker Prize went for the second time to Hilary Mantel for her historical novel Bring up the Bodies. The novel is about the life of Thomas Cromwell and the intrigues of the Tudor court, in 1535.

It follows Wolf Hall, which three years ago won her the first Booker. Mantel has plans to cap off her trudge through Tudor history with a final instalment, the upcoming The Mirror and The Light.

I can't muster much enthusiasm for historical novels. Hilary Mantel is a brilliant writer, but if I am to read history I would rather read the historians.

Besides, long novels presume too much upon one's time, and I have always been a firm believer that shorter fiction is better placed to capture the fragmented realities of modern life.

My preference goes to books which define our time. One such book on this year's shortlist is the slim novel, The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, which recounts a deceptively simple tale.

In a nutshell, it is the story of a man, Futh, separated from his wife, who goes on a walking holiday along the Rhine, in an attempt to sort himself out.

On the North Sea ferry, he hopes that this holiday will give him peace of mind, and he looks forward to 'a week of good sausage and deep sleep'.

As an epigraph, the author chooses a quote from Muriel Spark's The Curtain Blown by the Breeze: 'She became a tall lighthouse sending out kindly beams which some took for welcome instead of warnings against the rocks'.

The lighthouse is a recurrent motif throughout the book. Ostensibly, it refers to the silver case in the form of a lighthouse, which contains a vial of perfume that belonged to the protagonist's mother.

This bottle of violet perfume is central to the story. Obsessed with the memory of his mother, Futh carries this small object with him wherever he goes. It is an obvious symbol of comfort. Like a lighthouse, it gives him a sense of well-being, though he knows that despite warning lights, ships are still being wrecked.

Futh works in the manufacture of synthetic smells, and smells are an important element in the story. He has a keen olfactory sense and there are descriptions of all kinds of smells that revive his memories of the past. It brought to mind the film Perfume, though the story is very different.

The protagonist is an immature, lonely man, drifting in a world with which he does not connect.

All throughout his journey, he remembers various episodes of his life: the mother who abandons the family because her husband bores her, the wife he marries because she reminds him of his mother and who in turn abandons him. He goes over his unhappy childhood and various episodes about his parents.

Through little details, Alison Moore shows brief flashes of difficult relationships. This novel is about memory and the pain felt by abandonment.

Futh planned this holiday so as to find himself.  But his long walk only serves to make him to go over the past and feel the hurt again, that he had wanted so much to get away from.

He stops for an overnight stay in a place called Hellhaus or Lighthouse, in a hotel run by Ester and Bernard. Ester's turbulent story runs parallel through the book to that of Futh's. 

The latter is utterly oblivious that Ester has serious problems with her husband and has constant sexual encounters with her guests.

She also collects perfume bottles and one of them happens to have the shape of a wooden lighthouse. When at the end of the journey, Futh returns to the hotel to collect his luggage, he does not foresee what can happen to him. I don't wish to give away the unsettling climax, for which he is not prepared but which readers would have seen coming.

Moore's prose is spare and concise. She provides a complex circular structure to the book.

The protagonist goes on a circular tour, starting from Hellhaus and finishing there.  His memories run in overlapping circles of the same events repeated with different details. The story goes back and forth in time, while characters and plots interchange. 

This gives a dream-like quality to many episodes in the book.

This is Moore's debut novel, and she was amazed that it was eventually shortlisted for the Booker. The Lighthouse is very well written, and despite its rather complex structure, it makes for an easy read. 

It can even be taken for a thriller, for the author very cleverly builds up a sense of danger and foreboding at what awaits our naïve 'hero'.

But to read it like that would be to miss the finer points of a remarkable novel.