Monthly Archives: April 2021

Book review: ‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore

“Do you ever get a bad feeling about something?”

This sentence, which opens chapter three of The Lighthouse, could be the by-line for the book.

I got this book around the time it came out in 2012, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I put it aside after one or two chapters, finding it too depressing. 

Recently, nine years later, after coming across it again during a house move, I gave it another go. This time, I made it to the end. 

That’s not to say that it’s not still depressing. It is. This is a very weird book that makes you want to keep turning the pages despite the fact that it is about loss, abandonment, hopelessness, pettiness and apathy. Whether it’s a literary achievement to keep the reader turning the pages because they simply can’t believe that the story will stay so bleak, is another question.

A quick summary: Futh is a recently separated, middle-aged Englishman who undertakes a week-long, solo walking tour along the Rhine in Germany. This trip is the backdrop for his ongoing ruminations about his past. His mother left when he was a child, his father was an unfeeling cad, his only friend drifts away, his wife leaves him. During his trip, he repeatedly revisits these painful memories, turning them over and over, examining them from all angles, teasing out their excruciating details. 

The first thing to say about Futh is that his odd name embodies his entire character. He has no first name, an oddness that suits him down to the ground. Also, it straight away reminded me of the words ‘futile’ and ‘futility’. 

The other main character is Ester, the landlady of the B&B he stays in on his first and last nights in Germany. She, too, is treading water in life, mired in hopelessness, bleak memories and an equally bleak present. 

The ending of the book is ambiguous, but it’s not a spoiler to say that it’s not a happy one whatever way you look at it.

So what kept me reading? 

Moore is a highly accomplished writer who skilfully uses prose to conjure up a world characterised by minute, mundane details. Futh’s thoughts and actions are described step by painful step, as in this scene on the ferry on his journey to Germany: 

“Turning off the shower and stepping out of the cubicle onto the non-slip floor… He leans against the sink area, wipes his hand over the steamed-up mirror and looks again at his reflection.” 

…and, later in the book: 

“Futh notices that his feet are burnt. The skin is hot and pink between the straps of his sandals, and still blue-white underneath the straps, like the perfect band of pale skin on a ring finger when a wedding ring is removed for the first time in years.”

The effect of this level of detail on the reader is claustrophobic, grinding, relentless. You realise that this is how Futh himself must feel every day. However, it also makes you want to read on, hoping that some relief, some escape, is coming, for both yourself as reader and the hapless Futh.

Moore also uses the relentless detailing of mundanities to good effect when she describes food. Throughout the book, food is depicted as tasteless and unattractive. Futh’s first meal on arriving in Germany is a clingfilmed plate of cold cuts, dried out due to his late arrival. Futh also has difficulty acquiring food; several times on his trip, he misses meals; it is one of the many areas of life in which he is ineffective, joyless.

Equally unsettling is Moore’s depiction of the body. Her bodies are pasty, sagging, unappealing. We are reminded on a few occasions that Ester’s figure has deteriorated and is unattractive (her husband even points this out at one point); Futh’s body is barely functional enough to get him through his walks each day: his feet become raw and blistered, his skin burns in the sun. When Ester is about to get into bed with a customer of the B&B, the man’s exposed body reminds her of “sausage and sausage meat”. 

The Lighthouse is full of recurring images and themes. The chapters are named after them: ‘Oranges’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Venus Flytraps’, ‘Beef and Onion’. The main and most obvious image is the lighthouse, both an actual lighthouse of a childhood holiday of Futh’s and two perfume bottle holders in the shape of lighthouses. There is also the B&B and the town it is in, both named ‘Hellhaus’, which, we are told, means “bright house or light house” in German, but sounds horrifying in English.

The lighthouse image recurs repeatedly throughout the book, but cruelly inverted: what should be a symbol of safety and guidance is actually ominous and treacherous. Likewise, the B&B, instead of a place of rest and sustenance, is unwelcoming and uncomfortable in every way; the lighthouse Futh saw on his childhood holiday was, according to his father, responsible for many shipwrecks; the perfume bottle holder that Futh carries with him does not protect the bottle from getting broken or Futh from being cut by the shards.

Then there are smells. As the chapter names above indicate, smells are prominent in the book, all of them reminding Futh of various losses and betrayals: cigarette smoke, violets, oranges, disinfectant, camphor. We learn that both Futh and Ester have a professional interest in smells; Futh states early in the book, “I work in the manufacture of synthetic smells”, while Ester, when she was younger, wanted to become a perfumier. What the significance of these facts is, I’m not sure. Since it’s synthetic smells that Futh works with, and Ester did not realise her ambition, perhaps they’re simply intended as further instances of failure and falling short.

The subjects of family, marriage and parenthood are, like the lighthouse symbol, inverted in the book to epitomise their opposites: absence of love, physical absence, dissolution and betrayal. Futh’s mother left him; his father is uncaring and cold. The marriages in the book – Futh and Angela, Futh’s parents, Ester and her husband, Ester’s brother-in-law and his wife – are loveless. There are multiple instances of adultery. Pregnancy is depicted consistently as a negative: Futh seems unbothered by his wife’s many miscarriages, which are mentioned in a dry, emotionless tone; Futh’s uncle “got a girl in trouble” and had to leave home; Futh’s father says that a man’s life is over when he marries and has children; it is hinted that Ester had an abortion. 

As for love outside of marriage, the subject of Futh feeling any kind of affection is mentioned only once when we are told that he is “rather fond of” his pets. What are his pets? A collection of stick insects. 

Futh repels people; he has no friends; his life is of benefit to no-one. His existence is truly futile.

It remains only to wonder, as one reviewer on Goodreads wrote: “I’d really like to know what a writer’s motivation is to write something like this.” Maybe that’s a little harsh: as I said above, the writing is clever and considered, and the novel is carefully worked out and well structured. There is pleasure in reading good writing. 

I’m glad I read The Lighthouse, but I’m also glad it was short.

Book review: Jojo Moyes, ‘The Giver of Stars’

Jojo Moyes, as the cover of this book tells us, is the author of the bestselling ‘Me Before You’, which was made into a successful film in 2016. So expectations were high for ‘The Giver of Stars’, her sixteenth novel.

I was drawn in by the blurb, which begins “Alice Wright marries handsome American Bennett Van Cleve, hoping to escape her stifling life in England”. Adventure and conflict, two key elements of story, are there immediately. And the book delivers on this promise from page one. The prologue depicts a woman on horseback in the woods who meets a threatening stranger. A frightening encounter ensues and the woman only barely escapes. We are left with an air of tension and mystery: who is the woman, why was she alone on horseback, and not least, why does she have a heavy book with her?

The prologue also gives a hint of what is to be a key theme of the book when we are told, “And there is the bare truth of it, for her and all the women around here. Doesn’t matter how smart you are, how clever, how self-reliant – you can always be bettered by a stupid man with a gun.”

The main story then switches to the viewpoint of Alice Wright, newly arrived in the town of Baileyville, Kentucky, in 1937. The author has a lot to do in the first few chapters to ensure that readers quickly accept and relate to the whole cast of characters, the locale, and the era. This is no small task. Moyes handles it deftly in a number of ways.

First off, to conjure up a vivid picture of the locale, she uses slang, idioms and accents in the dialogue that are universally recognised (whether accurate or not is another matter) as belonging to the Appalachian region of the USA. She uses just the right amount of “ain’t”, “ole” and “git fast”; she doesn’t overdo it. (When talking about accents in books I always think of the character of Joseph in Wuthering Heights, whose speech was so twisted by Bronte’s attempts to reproduce his accent that the character was basically incomprehensible.)

Secondly, she uses well-known historical references – such as to the Depression, President and Mrs Roosevelt, the mining industry and poverty in the area – to situate the story in the period in question. The position of women in society at the time is brought up just a few pages in. The reactions of the townsfolk to the proposal to set up a mobile library run by women reflects the mixed views of the time.

No story set in the USA can overlook the issue of race. Moyes tackles it cleverly. There are black characters: two among the main characters, as well as the many local black men who work in the mine. These characters are constrained by the social norms of the time: Sophia Williams previously worked in the ‘Colored Library’ in the nearby town, her brother worked in the mine, and they now live in poverty in a tiny cabin. Sophia is welcomed and accepted by the other women who work with the mobile library, but her role is limited to that of administrator; she doesn’t go out distributing the books on horseback like the other (white) women, and she doesn’t like to be seen at public gatherings. Sophia herself accepts these limitations uncomplainingly and while some of the other women murmur against the injustice, the status quo is never actually challenged within the narrative.

This general acceptance by the characters of racial inequality jars a little for contemporary readers. However, as well as reflecting the views of the time, this ring-fencing of a sensitive issue is also characteristic of the genre. To confront and deal with difficult social and historical issues is not in the remit of romance novels. Given the constraints of the genre, Moyes deals with the issue of race competently and in a plausible way.

A main theme in The Giver of Stars is women’s empowerment through sisterhood. Moyes open this topic straight away by depicting the establishment of the town’s mobile library, run by women. Sisterhood comes from the top; we learn that this is a nationwide initiative championed by Eleanor Roosevelt. Alice, badly let down by the men in her life, finds acceptance, fulfilment and a new self-confidence in her work with the all-female operation. Its success in bringing literacy and enjoyment to the isolated poor people of the area is due in no small part to the solidarity and mutual support of the library’s staff. Moyes nicely juxtaposes this success with the toxic, destructive, male atmosphere of the mines. Growth through female solidarity is also illustrated in the fact that Izzy Brady learns to work with her physical disability and to stop regarding it as a fatal weakness.

There are good men in this story, though. It’s amusing that the two main “good” men are the sexy ones, Sven Gustavsson and Fred Guisler. This division is further reinforced by the depiction of the Van Cleve men as repressed and puritanical; Bennett cannot engage sexually with Alice, while her growing affection for Fred culminates towards the end in the longed-for act of lovemaking.

Women taking control of their own sexuality is yet another theme in the book. A banned (in the USA) work of the time, Married Love by Marie Stopes, is passed around among the women of the area in a further example of empowerment through sisterly solidarity. Alice’s own sexual awakening, which runs in parallel to her progress towards self-fulfilment, is shown to be another outcome of literacy and education.

This being a novel, there has to be a crisis. The shocking developments that occur about two-thirds of the way in are unexpectedly harsh and gritty. Previously strong bonds are tested to their limits, characters crack under pressure, and the dark underside of a misogynist society is revealed. Moyes brings everything back successfully at the end, order and harmony are restored, and the values espoused by the book – sisterhood, education, literacy, empowerment – are shown to be victorious.

I highly recommend this book as a great, rollicking story well told with equal measures of humour and grit.

%d bloggers like this: