The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (2012) Salt Publishing (2012) 184 pp
If you like “walking” novels and heard there was a good one on the Booker longlist, you were probably hearing about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (my review here). Despite the qualities that book had, I didn’t like it and didn’t consider it a suitable representative of the “walking” novel genre, whatever that is. I wasn’t sad when Harold Fry didn’t make the Booker shortlist. Fortunately, the “walking” genre didn’t lose out and is in fact represented on the shortlist by a superb debut novel, The Lighthouse.
Futh, our protagonist, is crossing the North Sea on a ferry, on his way to go for a days’-long walk in Germany. Much is introduced in this opening. Standing on the ferry deck, Futh thinks back to years earlier when he sat with his father in a movie theater. In this memory, his father proceeds to tell Futh a story of when he met Futh’s mother in a movie theater (she was handing out the popcorn, and Futh’s father had gone to the movies with someone else), and we get a sense that Moore is going to be nesting story within story, and that she’s going to pull it off. Also, while Futh thinks back to sitting in that theater with his father, we get an uncomfortable sense of how repulsive and sudden human contact can, at times, be:
Futh felt the warm pressure of his father’s thigh against his own, felt the tickle of his father’s arm hairs on his own bare forearm, the heat of his father’s beery breath in his ear hole, his father’s hand reaching into his lap, taking popcorn.
I admit I jumped a bit when Futh’s father reached into his lap, before I realized he was just reaching for some popcorn, and I’m sure Moore wanted us to be wary going forward. Not only has the past been tragic, but this is an ominous trip.
We also learn in this opening that long ago Futh’s mother abandoned him and his father (something else that relates to Harold Fry). “‘Do you know,’ Futher heard his mother say, ‘how much you bore me?'”, and Futh knows that she’d rather have some excitement in her life than spend even a day longer with his father, and losing Futh is not that big a deal. We also learn that Futh himself has just lost his wife, possibly because she also thinks he’s incredibly boring.
So this trip to Germany is an attempt to grapple with his past and present demons, to hopefully restore some balance in his life. Futh’s first stop along the way is at Helhaus (German for “lighthouse”), a nice bed-and-breakfast, where the hostess Ester is dealing with her own marital problems. In fact, from here on out, the book will alternate chapters — one for Futh, one for Ester — until Futh’s journey comes full circle and he plans to stop at Helhaus once more before hopping on the ferry for home.
As Futh’s journey progresses, the story’s complexity reveals itself both in narrative ties and symbolic ties. We’ve already seen that both Futh and his father were abandoned by unhappy spouses, and, in fact, both spouses were named Angela (though Futh’s wife repeatedly told him “I am not your mother”). Maternal abandonment leaves Futh sexually confused at a young age:
‘We can do without her,’ his father said as they walked on. But Futh knew that every woman his father brought into the hotel room was a substitute for her. Some of them even looked like her. And Futh, seeing the women going into the bathroom, watching them in the mirror in the middle of the night, desired them himself.
This confusion is brought out again when Futh’s father remarries to their neighbor, Gloria. For some time, Futh had been friends with Gloria’s son, Kenny, but that’s not to last, particularly when one evening Futh falls asleep watching a movie with Gloria, Gloria puts him in bed with Kenny. Kenny is livid the next morning, and their shaky friendship doesn’t survive. Sexual confusion continues when one day Futh walks in to find Gloria bathing. She asks him to scrub her back, saying that usually Kenny does this for her. Naturally, this brought Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence to mind, and I now cannot think of any movie that better matches the tone of these murky moments of heightened reality, again showing how something can be an aphrodisiac at one moment and repulsive the next.
Besides abandonment and sexual confusion, but related to them, infidelity is strung in with all of the narrative threads. While at Helhaus Ester and her husband, Bernard, are still together, she’s been unfaithful for years (“She remembers her first infidelity, but she does not remember them all”), at times hoping that jealousy will make Bernard hold on to her harder. Ester and Bernard themselves come from some infidelity; Ester was originally engaged to Bernard’s brother, Conrad. We wonder if Futh’s father ever hit on Futh’s wife, and we wonder if Futh’s wife ever had an affair with Kenny. Actually, we never get much of this resolved, and that’s okay. The moments that suggest something may have happened come into the narrative in a single sentence and drift away as quickly (if we’re not paying attention, we’ll never see them), and the questions raised linger and the potential answers disturb us all the more as the book proceeds to a conclusion we are dreading.
Besides the narrative connections, there are any recurring symbols: venus fly traps, moths, lighthouses, etc. If anything, this is the spot where I can see some weakness in Moore’s works. Sometimes she prods us with her clever symbols: what a character says about a real venus fly trap, for example, will become relevant to how a character acts later in a chapter entitled Venus Fly Trap. It’s not always nice to get the writer prodding us on in this way, but in The Lighthouse this didn’t become a big issue for me. Rather than detract from the story, these symbols, however overt, kept me right on track and served to emphasize just how many narrative connections the story has.
So, back to the walking aspect. As Futh walks, his memories return, sometimes in fragments, sometimes clearly, and often are repeated. We hear Futh’s mother ask his father “Do you know how much you bore me?” several times, and we see how this unwanted memory insists on being present everyday that Futh walks. As mentioned earlier, he’s more adept at suppressing memories about which he’s less certain, like the ones with his wife and his father and Kenny. Less insistent, those memories drift in and drift away, and Futh walks on, doomed.
I would be very happy if this book won this year’s Booker prize.