Fiction - Kindle edition; Salt Publishing; 192 pages; 2012.
Before I'd finished the first chapter of Alison Moore's astonishingly good debut novel, The Lighthouse, I knew I was going to love it. Why? Because it had that lovely melancholic feel that characterises Per Petterson's work. And perhaps because the opening chapter was set on a ferry — a common theme in Petterson's novels — I felt immediately at home with the subject matter and the prose style.
A week-long holiday
The book has been billed as a "walking novel" but it is less about walking than about a middle-aged man — the impossibly named Futh — coming to terms with his past while on a week-long holiday in Germany. As he trods a circular route along the Rhine, he has plenty of time to think about his childhood, his early adulthood and his marriage.
The holiday is supposed to be restorative — he is freshly divorced and when he returns to England he will move into a new flat, where "all those self-assembly boxes will be there, with all his things inside waiting to be unpacked". But things get off to a bad start on his first night at (the appropriately named) Helhaus hotel, in which he is badly treated by the landlord for what he thinks is no apparent reason.
However, Futh is not what we would call the most perceptive of characters, and much of what happens to him, not just on this holiday but throughout his life, seems to occur because he has misread people or situations. Indeed, most of this novel hinges on characters misunderstanding one another, either because they are too self-absorbed or because they lack the necessary social skills or emotional intelligence. On more that one occasion I was reminded of another of my favourite authors, Magnus Mills.
The Lighthouse contains a secondary narrative thread, told in alternate chapters, involving Ester, the landlady at the Helhaus hotel. Middle-aged but with a rampant sexual appetite, she resorts to seducing guests and having furtive sex with them, unaware that her usually inattentive husband knows exactly what she is doing.
Like Futh, Ester spends much of the novel thinking about her past and coming to terms with losing her looks — and her husband's love. Similarly, she is also unable to appreciate how others might view her behaviour, which leads to some ingenious set-ups that are laugh out loud funny. (As an example, that first night in the hotel is, quite frankly, hilarious.)
But on the whole this is a rather sad novel, more so when you realise that Futh is emotionally stunted, no doubt caused by his mother abandoning him as a small boy. Raised by his bullish father, a sexually promiscuous man, Futh lacks confidence, becomes the target of school bullies and finds it difficult to fit in, even as a grown man.
Much has been said about the heavy-handed use of metaphors in this book — the lighthouse, in particular, is a recurring (phallic) symbol — but I quite enjoyed spotting these. And I also enjoyed some of Moore's beautiful similes:
The man has his hands flat on the bar, his fingers splayed, his manicured nails like the display of eyes on a peacock's tail.
'You are losing your sparkles,' she said, reaching out and savagely refixing Ester's diamante hair pins, the wire scraping along her scalp like rocks against the hull of a boat as it ran aground.
But most of all I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.
The Lighthouse has been shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize. Tomorrow night (Tuesday, October 16), we will find out if it has taken the £50,000 award.