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.