I wanted to read The Lighthouse by Alison Moore – not because it was on the Man Booker shortlist (although that was a plus) but because it was originally published by a small indie press called Salt, which is aptly based in Cromer on the North Norfolk coast.
I have actually been to Cromer. My boyfriend and I went in winter and played zombie games in the arcade, then drank a lot of wine in our forlorn bedsit, staring out at the choppy grey sea and the faded pier. I have never got over how bleak the British seaside experience is. Brighton Rock, anyone?
And now to add to that canon we have The Lighthouse, featuring Futh and his fateful walking tour of Germany. The Lighthouse begins with a depressing ferry crossing and the tang of salt stayed with me. Perhaps from the tracks of Futh’s tears?
I enjoyed this novel – if enjoyment could ever be the right word to discuss a story that stars such miserable specimens of humanity: poor Futh, the cuckold, his major inadequacy a propensity towards sunburn and an ability to bore his wife (if we all left our men because we were bored not many marriages would last); and Ester, the sexual menace of Hellhaus, a lonely and frustrated B&B landlady brutally ignored by her husband.
The Lighthouse is the British cousin twice removed to Flannery O’Connor and her brand of Southern Gothic. I found myself returning to this quote from O’Connor: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
Futh and Ester are large and startling characters. At times I almost found Futh, a man so forgettable and vulnerable he ends the novel cowering in a cupboard with a pair of women’s panties, a bit of a cipher. But I think Moore has pulled off quite a feat in her creation of Futh; she’s made his comeuppance shocking.
Never the twain shall meet yet Futh and Ester’s lives are woven together by chance and the Lighthouse, a small bottle of perfume that awakens potent memories.
Perhaps my joking tone about this sinister story is actually a kind of emotional insulation? The Lighthouse is a novel about shame and shamefulness and the denouement dishes out a lavish punishment. Moore displays abundant flair as a storyteller and I was impressed by her ability to keep turning the screw – in more ways than one. The Lighthouse never misses the opportunity to show how the losses of the past can so vividly frame our lives in the present.
The ending is not kind. But I did find it satisfying, even satiating, as though my appetite had ultimately been fulfilled. And the chapter titles do play up particular foods as well as smells: Beef and Onion, Oranges…
Last but not least, The Lighthouse shares a tangential affinity to Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining. Psychic forces are at work and the B&B, although not literally haunted, is a “Hellhaus” by nature as well as by name.
The moral of the story: don’t marry your mother. Or if you do, don’t try to walk it off.
But enough of my glibness, this is a good novel.
Postscript: Whilst we all know Alison Moore is not the winner of the Booker, here is a lovely segment on the power the shortlist does have to change the fortunes of authors and small publishers. And Moore herself on The Lighthouse.