Alison Moore was in the playground with her three-year-old son when her husband cycled down to tell her her debut novel, The Lighthouse, had been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. A couple of months later, the telephone call came to announce she’d been shortlisted. Her novel hadn’t even been published in July; it’s now on its second print run of 40,000. Not bad for a book from Salt, a barely known Norfolk publisher that had originally anticipated a run of 3000 copies. Moore is, unsurprisingly, ecstatic and bewildered. “It’s totally unreal. And, of course, it keeps getting better and better.”
She’s been reading her way through the longlist. “So it has been an interesting experience as a reader as well as a writer. And what’s really nice is that all the books on the small and independent presses have made it through to the shortlist.” Every year when the Man Booker shortlist is announced, the same call goes up. They’ve ignored the big names! They’ve gone for unknowns! For debut writers! Last year, this was to the prize’s detriment, with what appeared to be a perversely modest list.
This year, they’ve got it right: The Lighthouse (one of two debuts; the other is Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil’s hallucinatory dispatch from Bombay’s opium dens) deserves its place alongside Will Self and Hilary Mantel. It’s a sly, quiet skin-crawler: a deceptively understated, claustrophobic horror story whose sinister import lies in its slow accumulation of seemingly mundane detail. “My editor has pointed out that I rather like writing about people getting trapped in one way or another, which is probably right,” says Moore. “It’s a childhood fear – how you would get out of a situation? Or, to look at it emotionally, the idea of constantly looking for escape routes.”
Certainly, The Lighthouse, this month’s Listener Book Club choice, is an artfully composed series of thematic concentric circles that violently pile up and on one level are all concerned with imprisonment and looking for ways out. Futh, recently thrown out of the marital home by his wife, Angela, has embarked on a week’s walking trip in Germany, where – amid endless panicky agitations over blisters, missed breakfasts and the terror of being lost – his thoughts return to his relationship with his wife and the morning in his childhood when his mother walked out.
Part of his life has been unshakeably stuck in that moment – he holds her silver lighthouse perfume bottle in his pocket; he wonders if strangers in the street might be her; he bought his wife hand cream because it reminded him of his mother. Futh is no great thinker, but as he walks memories prick his thoughts like thorns: the holiday with his father in a hotel in Germany – while Futh lay in bed, his dad would bring women back to the bathroom; the crusted towel he discovered in the glove compartment of Angela’s car; his childhood friend Kenny, who perhaps was never really a friend at all. And as the modest horizons of Futh’s world view unfurl, so do its deeper complexities – the damage inflicted by his mother’s departure, the impact of a lifetime of small humiliations, the arrested state of childhood he still half-occupies that has left him so disastrously ill-equipped for adulthood.
‘It began with a man sitting in a woman’s kitchen; she wasn’t there and he was obsessed with her,” says Moore. “Then I broke off to write a short story that had been commissioned, and when I returned to it I instinctively felt it needed more movement. Then I remembered a walking holiday in Germany I’d been on with my husband that had been circular, and I realised it would fit very well. There were things that I wanted to write about that were circular: namely, the way smell can transport you instantly back to your childhood, and the way you can come back to a moment in your past and be unable to let go.”
Moore, 41, had written a couple of unpublished novels and several award-winning short stories before embarking on The Lighthouse. “They allowed me to learn the art of words,” she says. She revises endlessly, cutting away everything “that’s extraneous” to leave the bone of the story, yet the effect is often disconcerting, like too much stillness on a very hot day. She began The Lighthouse after the birth of her son – “After a child, you feel much more raw. And you have to commit yourself to writing each evening: if you don’t do it today, you kind of accept you’ll never do it,” she says. “I was very struck by how my son plays out fantasies of being chased and cornered; it’s practice for dealing with frightening things but he knows he’s okay. But in writing, it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s point about whether the bomb under the table explodes. You can go either way. In this book, I make the bomb explode.”
She certainly does, although Moore is a stealth bomber rather than a writer of shock and awe, creating a tension you can feel but never quite see. “I rather like dropping in clues and hints, so that if you can collect them all up as you go you can see an unwritten strand … or fill in the gaps for yourself.” Moore always wanted to be a writer. “Nothing else ever quite made sense.” She grew up in Loughborough, with her elder brother and twin sister. “I might have been an introverted person anyway, but having a twin – we had quite a tight little world.” From a young she age took comfort in books. “My sister and I were separated at school and I remember going into the classroom and feeling frightened, and then seeing books on the shelves and feeling safe.”
She cites Ian McEwan and Flannery O’Connor as writers she particularly admires, and you can see the similarities – the sinister shadows pooling in the background, the clever manipulation of reader expectation. “I love writing about the horror within the real world, within utterly normal lives, and what can happen,” she says. “It’s like that title of Jon McGregor’s short story,
This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. That really points towards the kind of story I like.”
THE LIGHTHOUSE, by Alison Moore (Canongate, $24.99); the Man Booker Prize is announced on October 17 (New Zealand time).
To join the conversation about The Lighthouse, visit the Book Club section, follow the Twitter account @nzlbookclub or go to the Facebook page New Zealand Listener Book Club. Also on our website this week will be regular blogs and podcasts from Books & Culture editor Guy Somerset in Germany for New Zealand’s guest-of-honour programme at the Frankfurt Book Fair.