Part of the Man Booker Prize 2012 Longlist Series.
In The Lighthouse Alison Moore has created an unsettling, seemingly becalmed but oddly sensual, and entirely excellent novel. The middle-aged and recently separated Futh is going on a walking-tour in Germany to clear his head before returning to a single life in a flat full of boxes his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Angela, had to pack for this stunningly ineffectual man. Futh’s very name is an awkward monosyllabic cotton-woollish and wholly unmemorable sound. He is constantly outrun and unbalanced by the actions of other people: the aggressive cuckolded hotel-manager, whose wife desires his mother’s silver lighthouse perfume case, his father’s women, and his bored wife who echoes the mother who left him as a child. Time and again Futh ends up in the middle of others’ problems but is too inept to realise it and suffers as a consequence.
His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding. It feels the way it felt when his mother left.
Futh is lost in the present, at home only vaguely in the past. Indeed, it is as if his development was arrested the moment his mother left, and everything else is seen through the lens of that departure, that void. His childishness is remarkable: in one episode Futh, fully-grown physically at least, is smacked by his father for speaking out of turn. He has so little idea of how to conduct himself that his behaviour renders him frankly creepy. At one point he approaches a woman reading an English book and tells her she smells like his wife. Matters are only made worse when she sees his hand thrust deep into his pocket as he talks: he’s clutching his lighthouse, which takes on a rather phallic dimension in Moore’s writing at this point. When he first arrives at his German hotel he encounters Ester, the chronically unfaithful wife of the manager, who sleeps with passing men in the guest rooms.
He stands in front of her, and she regards him, this man with gravy on his chin and on his shirt and even on the crotch of his trousers. ‘I’m Futh,’ he says again in English. ‘Someone’s expecting me.’
And yet no one is really expecting him. Futh is, at almost every point, superfluous.
A strange symmetry runs throughout the novel. Symmetries of smell and memory, of stains and disinfectant, and of the sense of lives cut adrift and slowly driven onto the rocks at the very moment they thought themselves safe. At the centre is the lighthouse, the object with which Futh orientates himself to the world. It becomes fairly clear that he has chosen the wrong reference point. Futh’s silver lighthouse belonged to his mother who liberally applied its expensive scent of violets and he repeatedly returns to the moment atop a cliff where he first recognised the fractures in his parents’ marriage.
Futh, up on the cliffs in Cornwall with the silver lighthouse in one hand and the stoppered glass vial in the other, wandered back to his parents. His mother was still lying with her eyes closed, her face turned to the sun. His father was looking out to sea and then Futh heard him say, ‘The foghorn blasts every thirty seconds.’
’Do you know,’ said his mother, ‘how much you bore me?’
The vial shatters in Futh’s small fist, scarring his hand and rendering the silver lighthouse hollow as his mother leaves him. Ester also has a lighthouse but hers is a cheaper wooden version: a symbol of her dissatisfaction, her infidelity a symbol of her dissipation. Their coming together does not bode well for Futh and Moore handles the denouement (for once a fitting term) very well indeed.
Moore builds a picture of a deflated and damaged man with whom it can be very difficult to feel any sympathy. Throughout particular smells attract Futh: violets, orange peel, apples, cigarette smoke warm cotton. All of them signal the memory of his mother and motivate his search for substitutes which seems to sully every relationship. Time and again his wife tells him ‘I’m not your mother’ in the face of some request. The artificial evocation of his mother through scent signals Futh’s sheltering within the false, with the safe. His professional life was bound up with producing artificial smells – the now outmoded scratch’n’sniff cards. Their dependability after twenty years is what matters most to him: these tiny bottles of scent don’t leave him. His essential childishness and need for support sabotages every endeavour. He can’t even manage a regular meal or avoid sunburn and blisters whilst on holiday. At times, his obsession with the past takes on more disturbing sexual dimensions, a result of his father’s dalliances in shared hotel rooms.
It is interesting to compare The Lighthouse to another Booker longlisted indie novel Swimming Home by Deborah Levy. Both create an uncomfortable atmosphere of unhappiness and loss, both hark back in some sense to parents and childhood and dependence, and yet they are so different in tone and structure that reading both as part of the Booker longlist is a complementary, if not altogether cheering, experience. Levy’s prose creates a fluid space of uncertain dimensions within a crystalline, faceted structure, which is resistant to interpretation beyond a certain point. Moore, however, sustains an understated but utterly compelling drive, which unflinchingly documents the failings of her protagonist, piling each unexceptional moment on the next, to create a discomforting and moving portrait of intense loss.