Alison Moore’s debut novel The Lighthouse is a quietly deceptive tale; one of those books that so gently wraps itself around you that you just have to keep reading even when you’re not really sure where it’s going.
This is not a novel that bursts forth with a big bang opening or one that contains any significant dramatic events. Instead we follow the slow trail of a middle-aged man bearing the oddly-sounding name of Futh, as he takes a solo walking holiday in the Rhineland. Futh’s idea of a good holiday is rather simple; he isn’t looking for adventure but rather a ‘week of good sausages and deep sleep’ that will help him recover from the recent break up of his marriage. We soon discover that his marital separation isn’t anywhere as traumatic an experience as his mother’s decision to abandon him as a child.
Futh is a lonely and rather hapless soul. A man who seems only half complete. He has no true friends; his father mocks his work as chemist who creates fake scents for polishes and air fresheners and his marriage is little more than a relationship of convenience. As he tramps the paths along the Rhine each day with blistered feet and sunburnt head he recalls episodes and fragments from his life.
Futh clings to his past life with the aid of a small lighthouse-shaped perfume bottle that once belonged to his mother. He carries it with him everywhere, a talisman whose violet scent always reminds him of his mother and the last day they enjoyed together before she abandoned him.
This small object, one of many motifs within the novel, takes on additional significance in the second strand of the book in which we meet the owners of a small hotel/bar called Hellhaus (German for ‘lighthouse’) where Futh begins and is due to end his holiday. Esther has a habit of enticing some of her male guests to sleep with her as a way of getting her taciturn husband Bernard to show an interest in her again. He does with the aid of dark threats and a heavy fist. Poor Futh gets caught up in their tangled lives on his first night on holiday when he attracts Bernard’s mistaken suspicions of an assignation with Esther. Futh leaves the establishment on the first morning blissfully unaware of the smouldering fuse he is leaving behind in this hotel and to which he will return. Although this is not a suspense novel in the traditional sense, Moore’s narrative gradually notches up the tension with each step that takes Futh back to the hotel.
The Lighthouse explores the consequences of a traumatic incident in childhood; the way the past impacts the adult self. Futh evokes our sympathy for the hopelessness and emptiness of his life and his obsession with the past, with its old wounds and childhood hurts that will always keep dragging him back and prevent him achieving from achieving happiness.
The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. The Independent called it “a masterclass in slow-burn storytelling”
Alison Moore lives in Nottingham, UK where she is an honorary lecturer in English.