27th Sep 2012
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
The Lighthouse is the début novel from Alison Moore. It’s also been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize where it will be up against, among others, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which is the current favourite to win.
Moore isn’t a complete novice when it comes to being shortlisted for awards, though, having been on the list for the Bridport Prize and the Manchester Fiction Prize in the past.
The Lighthouse tells of Futh, a middle-aged man recently separated from Angela, his wife, who sets out on a week’s walking holiday along the Rhine. As he walks he reminisces about his childhood, including his only other trip to Germany, when he was twelve.
His mother, also called Angela, had just walked out on her family and Futh recalls lying in bed in the hotel, listening to his father bring a different woman back to their room every night.
Alternating with the chapters about Futh are shorter chapters telling Ester’s story. She, much like the other women in Futh’s life, is frustrated and seeking to find a way out of a life that they resent.
Ester’s frustration springs from her husband’s indifference to her, only noticing her when other men do. Using the rooms in their inn, Ester has sex with a string of customers, seeing Bernard‘s anger as a sign that he still cares.
The Lighthouse is a difficult novel to review in many ways. None of the characters are particularly empathetic or likable and not an awful lot happens plot-wise.
However, the novel’s power lies in the quality of Moore’s prose and the strength of her descriptions. The writing is simple and unemotional but conveys a pervasive sense of dread and underlying tension, making the novel a compelling, if brief, read.
Moore’s use of scents have drawn comparisons to Patrick Süskind’s Perfume and these resonate throughout the novel. Smells are described vividly, such as when Ester is eating an orange and “a sweet, citrussy mist surrounds her, masking a warm meat smell.” The smells are frequently slightly nauseating, adding another layer to the disquieting story.
Scent is also used as a narrative device to link the two strands of the story. Futh’s talisman is a silver lighthouse that used to hold a vial of violet scent, a constant reminder of his absent mother.
Ester also has a lighthouse but her’s, a wedding present from Bernard, is the cheaper wooden version. Her longing for Futh’s silver lighthouse is the catalyst for the novel’s genuinely shocking denouement.
It’s fantastic to see a début from a tiny independent publisher make it to the Booker shortlist (there are actually three small publishers represented this year) and The Lighthouse is worthy of the nomination.
Some of the symbolism is a little heavy-handed, but this is easily outweighed by the quality of the writing and the unexpected emotional punch of the ending.
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to support small publishers whilst still getting a fabulous novel; those who like their writing sparse but powerful.
Other recommended reading: For another novel which uses scents to evocative effect, try Patrick Süskind‘s aforementioned Perfume; Rachel Joyce‘s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was longlisted for the Booker and another novel about walking and connections between the past and the present.