Inspiring Older Readers
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
Alison Moore’s debut novel from 2012, produced by the innovative Salt Publishing, was unexpectedly shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (New Writer of the Year) and went on to win the McKitterick Prize and become one of The Observer books of the year. That’s quite a pedigree and, despite its relatively short length – less than 200 pages – it entirely merits the praise and attention it drew on its release.
The best way that I can summarise this book is to say that it’s a novel in which nothing much happens but everything could. Somewhere at the ends of each sentence and in the gaps between the lines there is space for the reader to interpret any number of possible developments and outcomes. It’s an unsettling experience to be part of a co-production with the author in which the reader’s assumptions and projections are legitimate possible ways in which the story can be developed or events interpreted. In that respect this is a book that’s more about quantum possibilities than it is about the certainty of gravity.
At the centre of the book is the almost invisible Futh ( we only ever know him by this surname which is itself an almost invisible breath of wind) who is setting off on a walking holiday of Germany to mark the ending of his short marriage. Typically, he’s hopelessly ill-equipped in every sense; physically as well as mentally unprepared for this trip which is an ill-advised attempt to recapture a holiday adventure he made with his father some years previously. It has to be said, however, that just about all his past experiences have been so unpleasant that it takes a considerable act of imagination to understand why he’d want to recreate any of his previous life.
Futh is involved in a circular walking trip that is to take him from the Hotel Hellhaus (it translates as Lighthouse) and back to the same starting point. As if this circular journey wasn’t symbolic enough, Futh habitually carries with him a scent bottle in the form of a lighthouse that he has the unfortunate habit of rubbing in his pocket to the obvious dismay of at least one woman who misinterpret the actions. The lighthouse symbolism is, of course, a double-edged signal to the reader – it’s both potentially a sign of salvation from the rocks but also a warning of danger. And that is the leit motif that runs through this book – every possibility is also a potential danger.
Alongside Futh’s ineffectual meandering, his ambiguous and sexually charged reminiscences relating to his father and mother, his wife, his step-mother and step-brother, Moore sets another story running relating to the owners of the Hotel Hellhouse who might just be the Fred and Rosemary West of this part of Germany. But then again, they might not be. Whether they are or not is kind of up to you but the one thing that is for certain is that they are definitely the rocks onto which the good ship Futh will run.
There’s lots to really love about this novel. It’s economy of length and mastery of form is enviable but what I thought was so very impressive was the three-dimensionality of the writing. Alison Moore is absolutely brilliant at tangible detail – she can make you feel her world is exquisite detail. Take for example the description of the eating of a boiled egg:
“Making small talk, he moves up the bar towards her with his naked egg, the white giving between his broad thumb and his short fingers. He stands so close that his foot is touching hers, but she doesn’t move hers away. He bites into his egg and she hears it being wetly masticated inside his mouth…Ester sees the eggy, claggy inside of his opening and closing mouth.”
There are similar examples of this tangible physicality again and again. The cumulative effect is to make a 180 page book feel like a physical experience – Futh’s sore feet become your sore feet.
I haven’t read any of Moore’s subsequent adult fiction but on the strength of this I plan to seek some out and see if this kind of quality can be sustained. I do hope so.