The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore

>> Thursday, October 11, 2012

TITLE: The Lighthouse
AUTHOR: Alison Moore

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Salt Publishing

SETTING: Contemporary Germany
TYPE: Fiction

The Lighthouse begins on a North Sea ferry, on whose blustery outer deck stands Futh, a middle-aged, recently separated man heading to Germany for a restorative walking holiday.Spending his first night in Hellhaus at a small, family-run hotel, he finds the landlady hospitable but is troubled by an encounter with an inexplicably hostile barman.In the morning, Futh puts the episode behind him and sets out on his week-long circular walk along the Rhine.

As he travels, he contemplates his childhood; a complicated friendship with the son of a lonely neighbour; his parents' broken marriage and his own. But the story he keeps coming back to, the person and the event affecting all others, is his mother and her abandonment of him as a boy, which left him with a void to fill, a substitute to find. He recalls his first trip to Germany with his newly single father. He is mindful of something he neglected to do there, an omission which threatens to have devastating repercussions for him this time around.At the end of the week, Futh, sunburnt and blistered, comes to the end of his circular walk, returning to what he sees as the sanctuary of the Hellhaus hotel, unaware of the events which have been unfolding there in his absence.
This continues my mission to read all the 6 books on the Man Booker short-list before the winner is announced. The story starts with a man called Futh, who's on his way to Germany for a walking holiday. He isn't particularly looking forward to it, but he and his wife have only recently separated, and he's adrift and lonely and doesn't know what to do with himself.

His walk is to be a circular one, and he sets out from the Hellhaus hotel. His story, as he walks his route back to it, remembering his marriage and his relationship to his cold father and his mother who abandoned them, is told in every other chapter. The chapters in-between go back to the Hellhaus, and tell the story of Ester, who runs the hotel with her husband. Ester is just as lonely and adrift as Futh, in a marriage with a husband who doesn't care about her, but who, we realise, does care about her infidelities.

I really liked this one. It's quiet and melancholic, but beautifully written. The best thing about it, in my opinion, was the structure. It's basically circles upon circles upon circles. Futh's walk is the obvious one, but the narrative itself continues the theme. Moore keeps circling back to the same incidents, the same memories, each time adding a tiny bit more, changing the meaning of things and increasingly illuminating the characters. She also circles back to the same images and descriptions, even words, and they pop up in different contexts, immediately inviting us to draw intriguing parallels.

As she does so, she combines the increasing sense of something definitely going to go wrong, as Futh circles back to the Hellhaus, with touches of low-key humour, which don't dampen the tension in the least.

The writing is perfect for the story. It's spare and simple, but powerful. Moore draws her characters one stroke at a time, only what's strictly necessary. I get the feeling that's what Deborah Levy was going for in Swimming Home, but whereas that didn't work for me at all, it's just right here. Why? Mainly because the product is actual characters, who feel real.

The ending was interesting. I'm not the world's biggest fan of open, or even open-ish endings, but sometimes an intriguing one, which leaves things a bit up in the air and up to the reader to interpret is what is needed, and this is one of those cases. However, the story is slightly let down by the fact that some of Futh's actions leading to that ending are not quite convincing. It's a shame, but doesn't spoil what is a very good book. With this one, I kind of see the point the judges made about the short-listed books repaying rereading.



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