Wednesday, 5 September 2012


The women in Alison Moore's Man Booker longlisted début novel, The Lighthouse, are all a version of the same woman: this woman is promiscuous, disappointed, unlucky in her choice of husband, and lives a sort of non-life. The best word for her is probably 'collapsed'. Futh is the main character and this woman is, in her different forms, Futh's mother, wife, several of his hotel landladies, and neighbour. Her name is somewhat biblical, with a celebratory tinge - Angela, Gloria, Ester - but her life is far from happy.

The men in the novel are loners and losers, the saddest of men - they are mean, self-focussed, sometimes violent and seem not to care for anyone, even vulnerable children. They are lost in their adult world - a confusing place for them - and are often irresponsible in word and deed.

Futh is trying to re-live a walking holiday he took with his father in Germany as a child. He ambles along largely undescribed byways, making basic mistakes and not really enjoying anything. His mind is filled with memories of his absent mother, his wife who has just left him, and of the various women his father turned to when Futh's mother left them. Through all of this Futh carries, like a talisman, a tiny silver lighthouse that was his mother's, but really belongs to his father's family.

Parallel to Futh's story is that of Ester, a hotel landlady in Hellhaus, married to the jealous Bernard, a man who only notices her when someone else does. Ester wants to be young but is not and she spends her time tending to her small number of guests, drinking gin and doing her makeup. She also does a sideline as unpaid, in-house prostitute.

If all this makes the novel sound melancholic, well, it is. But it is also beautiful and compelling. The prose is unadorned and fluid; the story unfolds gently but with a certain urgency. It is one of those books that makes a reader want to sneak off and read several times a day - any excuse to curl up and see where Futh's journey will take him, and if Ester will find a way to acceptance or joy.

It is hard to like Futh - he is a damaged and hapless man - but we also empathise with him for those very reasons. His social skills are poor and half the time he even fails to eat. The reader can't help feeling concerned for him, even at his most foolish and annoying. How can life go well for such a man?

Ester too is unsympathetic and, yet, the hope is that she will find happiness somehow. That someone or something will wade in and rescue her from a creaky marriage and a closeted life. A series of mis-read situations, however, put both Ester and Futh on very shaky ground.

Moore's storytelling is masterful - as the novel goes on, one senses a rise to some terrible crescendo but it is never clear where everything is headed. Moore uses linking motifs and repetition to good effect: the lighthouse of the title, the smell of violets, the eating of oranges, and a handful of repeated phrases and actions that work like mantras. These are reassuring and delicately woven so that the reader sees a pattern and begins to question its design.

It is always heartening to see small publishers holding their own against the richer, bigger publishing houses in literary arenas like the Man Booker Prize. Salt and Alison Moore may yet go all the way with this novel that zones in on the consequences of loss and abandonment, ageing, the inability to grow up, and aloneness/loneliness. Here's hoping this book goes far; The Lighthouse deserves many appreciative readers.


rozz lewis said...

Great review and am putting The Lighthouse on my to read list...after Mother America, of course. Am reading Sarah Hall's short stories at minute...not enough time for it all!


Sarah Hall's stories are magnificent! I should review that book here too. I'll here her read in Cork in a couple of weeks - can't wait!
Yes, do get The Lighthouse. Well worth the read.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Great review. I much enjoyed The Lighthouse, and if Goodreads had allowed four and three quarter stars, Id have given it that - taking off a modicum for what I saw as over-heavy symbolism on occasion. But Goodreads doesn't, so it got five stars!

I really hated Futh as a person. Yuk! He is so pathetic, the sort of bloke who makes my gorge rise - but what a great creation! And how clever of Alison Moore to make me want to read on, and ultimately to care about his being OK.

Its a great book, and I really agree with your view that it's the sort of book you want to get back to - it draws you in extraordinarily well. I will read it again - there is more in this treasure house!


Yes, V, there was some sense of over-doing it betimes with the repetition but I also always felt it was necessary somehow and trusted it.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Sounds like a must-read!


It is. Very compelling.

Johanna Leahy said...

A great review Nuala. I'm three-quarters through The Lighthouse and am enjoying it. Lots of detail and amazingly well paced. Of the three longlisters I've read, it's by far my favourite. It would be great to see a Salt author on the shortlist. Fingers crossed for Alison Moore:)

Rachel Fenton said...

Oh, glad I held off spending my book vouchers! Think I'll enjoy this.


I think you will like it, Rachel. It is nicely atmospheric.