The Lighthouse is the title of the Booker nominated debut novel by Alison Moore. This debut novel possesses a curious atmosphere all of its own, the sum of its parts adding up to a much greater whole. As such, the difficulty involved in the task of synopsizing the plot is proportionate to the amount of enjoyment a reader will obtain from this distinctively eerie novel.
We begin on a ferry where we meet the hapless Futh on deck feeling seasick. He is on his way to Germany to take a hiking holiday in the wake of the breakdown of his marriage. As the trip unfolds we journey through Futh´s recollections of his put upon past. Hampered from childhood with a violent cloddish father and a self-absorbed mother who soon abandons him, Futh seems doomed from the get go. The only memento Futh retains of his mother is a perfume container in the shape of a lighthouse from which the novel takes its name, this sad keepsake also seeming to inspire his career choice of developing synthetic smells. The container is much treasured by Futh and accompanies him on his trip.
As Futh´s memories move from childhood to his teenage years we witness his awkward interactions with his neighbour Gloria, who would in the parlance of today be termed a cougar. Gloria seems to vacillate between wanting Futh as a lover or a son, having effectively lost both of these figures due to her infidelity, finally shacking up with Futh´s father instead. Her belligerent son Gary reluctantly visits only occasionally. Gary and Futh were firm friends as children but their friendship did not survive when Gary and his father moved out and they ceased to be neighbours. Now they regard each other warily, the diminishing returns of their relationship mutating into a peculiarly intimate form of hostility, particularly on Gary´s behalf who resents Futh’s regular visits, at Gloria’s invitation, into his one-time family home.
As Futh recollects his past his pointless pilgrimage proceeds onwards, the sunburn and blisters he accumulates making it seem more like a mild form of self-harm than a holiday. Futh avails himself of a travel service for hikers which forwards his luggage to the poor quality guesthouses along his route, his baggage preceding him both literally and metaphorically as he proceeds.
It is at the first of these dissatisfactory guest houses that we encounter the novel’s second protagonist Ester. We meet Ester propping up the bar of the establishment which her husband owns, wearing make up in an attempt to conceal a black eye. Ester is a faded former beauty given to serial infidelity despite, or in spite of, her husband’s often violent interventions. Her co-fornicators of choice primarily consist of single male guests who stay at their establishment, who she brazenly approaches spiriting them away to the unused rooms where she conducts her fleeting affairs. As we become acquainted with her past we see a complex figure emerge, more fleshed out than one might expect from what could have if portrayed by a less talented writer, been a two-dimensional stereotype of a randy tavern owner’s wife. Both Futh and Ester’s fate become entwined through their mutual possession of Lighthouse perfume, this seemingly benign object a catalyst for Futh’s terrible fate.
As I mentioned earlier this rough synopsis does no justice to the totality of this endearingly strange novel. The prose is precise and taut as a drum skin conjuring an eerie aura of foreboding throughout. Imagery is used masterfully, especially a link between a thumbed doughnut, the smell of cigarette smoke, and the subject of motor car repair which sadly I can’t disclose for fear of ruining a reader’s experience.
The characters, while engaging, are not sympathetic and the problems which they confront are mostly of their own making. While Futh is often a victim, it is hard to maintain sympathy for him past childhood as he seems to be comfortable with this situation. The author must be applauded for this brave portrayal, flying as it does in the face of the common book club complaint of “I didn’t like the novel because I didn’t like the characters!” which reduces the world of literature to some kind of adolescent popularity contest. Lighthouse is an assured and impressive debut from a fascinating new talent whose next work I eagerly await.