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Alison Moore: The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse surprised everyone, the author included, by being nominated to the 2012 Man Booker Prize short list. It is a surprise because it is published by a small, independent publisher but also because it is Moore’s first novel, though she has written several short stories. It is, as she says, a novel about loss but also a novel about failure. In some respects, the novel is reminiscent of some of Hilary Mantel‘s early fiction, novels that seem to come out of the 1950s and tell of lonely, lower middle class people leading lives of quiet desperation, to quote Thoreau, via Pink Floyd.

Futh is the hero of this novel. We never learn his first name. His grandfather had emigrated from Germany (we only learn why towards the end of the book). Futh and his father had once visited Germany, when Futh was twelve, but it had not been a successful holiday. As we are repeatedly reminded, Futh’s mother, Angela, finds Futh’s father very boring and eventually leaves him to return home to New York. Neither Futh nor his father ever hear from her again, though, on a visit to New York, Futh thinks he sees her on several occasions. Futh has a lonely childhood. He is vaguely friendly with Kenny, who lives next door, but Kenny is not very keen on Futh. Kenny eventually leaves, when his father moves out after Gloria (Kenny’s mother, who does have a first name) is caught in an affair. Futh tends to watch Gloria, though not really sexually, more out of curiosity and she is friendly with him when she sees him. Meanwhile, Futh is lonely at school, while, at home, his father brings a succession of women home before ending up with Gloria.

But this story is, in particular, about a walking trip Futh takes to Germany. He has been married to Angela (same name as his mother) for fifteen years. It has not been a successful marriage. He had known her at school and met her at a university open day but she had not remembered either. They meet when she gives him a lift while he is hitchhiking (he only learns to drive later in life) and she is having a messy affair with a married man which she wishes to end. They marry but we see (though he does not seem to) that she is not entirely faithful. She also has several miscarriages. He is now moving out (she is doing the packing) and he is off to spend a week walking in Germany. He plans to drive, via the ferry, to a town called Hellhaus and walk for a week, with his case being taken by a courier company to the next town, ending up back in Hellhaus. On the ferry, he meets a Dutchman called Carl, who is going to Utrecht, and invites Futh not only to his mother’s house but suggests he stays for the week. That, too, does not work out.

While we follow Futh in his travels, which are beset with problems (blisters, getting lost, missing meals), we also meet Ester, the wife of Bernard, the owner of the hotel in Hellhaus. This, too, is not a happy marriage. Ester had been engaged to Conrad, Bernard’s brother, but switched her affections. Bernard is very jealous and, with reason, as Ester is not faithful to him. He frequently hits her and often shouts at her. While Futh is out walking, we follow Ester and her daily routines. A quick word about the lighthouse. Hellhaus can be translated as light house (though not as lighthouse, which is Lichthaus). However, the lighthouse of the title is an ornate bottle of perfume which Futh’s grandfather had brought over from Germany when he emigrated and which Futh now has and which takes on a symbolic role throughout the book.

This is certainly an interesting novel but I am not sure that it really is Booker Prize quality. It certainly portrays the story of several people – Futh, his father, Gloria, Ester and Bernard – who are not happy with their life and do not really fit in but just drift through the day. Futh and his father both lose their respective wives, though Futh’s father seems more upset at his loss than Futh does at his. Gloria loses her husband (but gains Futh’s father, not necessarily an improvement) while Bernard, as we learn, has lost his great love and Ester has lost Conrad. But, for me, the main feeling is one of ordinary people who seem unable to make much of their lives but just drift along in quiet desperation.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Salt Publishing