Thursday, 27 September 2012

Review: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

At the risk of being flippant (and, more certainly, the danger of releasing spoilers!), my initial forays into this years Booker Prize shortlist has suggested there's a very simple formula for obtaining a nomination - write a depressing novel about depressed Brits holidaying in Europe, have it published by a small publisher, and finish it off with a surprising death.  Success is assured!

Joking aside though, where The Lighthouse clearly outdoes Swimming Home (which for all its potential I can't say I enjoyed) is in creating a pair of protagonists with whom we can feel great pity.  Whereas Levy's prose style in Swimming Home swerved off towards obscurity, Moore uses a calculatedly blunt style to reflect the emotional stuntedness of the book's central character Futh - a newly single middle-aged man hiking in Germany, whose tragic back story emerges bit by bit as the novel goes on.

At times, Futh's character seems almost overdetermined.  Not only does he experience Oedipal desires for his long-departed mother (he eventually, and wisely, stops telling his long-term partner and his readers the ways in which she reminds him of his mother), he also obsessively remembers his father's sexual encounters which he was forced to watch as a boy, leading to a cloying physicality in the books opening chapters across both storylines - one highlight (or lowlight) being the memorable 'He bites into his egg and she hears it being wetly masticated in his mouth'.  Charming.

That other storyline depicts Ester and Bernard, a bitterly divided couple who run a small hotel, having run away together when Ester was engaged to Bernard's brother.  What Ester and Futh share is a pathetic but painfully credible self-awareness - Ester gets her haircut and realises she looks like her father; Futh allows himself to be chased out of a potential friend's house when he overhears him arguing with his mother, and assumes it is probably his fault.  This is coupled with an equally tragic pursuit of meagre goals - a chapter about Ester's unsuccessful but blatant attempts to seduce a customer is knowingly entitled 'Romance'; Futh looks up a bus timetable and returns to bed 'feeling pleased'.

Initially the pair are only linked by the fact that Futh spends the first night of his holiday in Ester's hotel, where a series of misunderstandings leads to Bernard seeing Ester exit a partially clothed Futh's room, before Futh himself exits with a pair of her knickers.  Inevitably, the structure of the book leads us to assume that they will be reunited by the end, although I would certainly gripe about the unnecessarily revealing review extracts on the cover - any suspense as to what form this reunion will take is undermined by the ironically shock-crushing quote from Hephzibah's Anderson's piece in The Daily Mail - 'it all stokes a sense of ominousness that makes the denouement not a bit less shocking'.

What is so strong about the book is the way it manages to stir up sympathy for two hopelessly unloveable characters.  Moore achieves this by using her platform as a novelist to focus in on the minutiae of their lives, shining a light on the banal tragedy.  In this sense, I rather think that the 'shocking denouement' is counter-productive - it does farcically highlight the misfortune of Futh, to suffer for supposedly having an affair when his relations with women are so unrelentingly dismal - but it also adds a sensationalist glamour to a book which would achieve its full effect by dismissing both Futh and Ester to a continued life of memory and misery, letting them slowly fade out of the spotlight which has been incongruously placed upon them.

That being said, and without taking anything away from this very good novel, it is worth noting that two of the books nominated as the best six of the year are so miserable, precisely in implicitly doubting whether everyday life is even worth living.  Such books can definitely be brilliant, and they also serve to cover ground which is often taboo in normal society - in the real world I would probably run a mile rather than spend 5 minutes with a Futh or Ester.  Nonetheless, I don't think it's shallow to hope for literature to strive for an ultimately life-affirming message.  There's more to a good book than simply being difficult, and there's more to being difficult than simply being depressing, which is perhaps a lesson that Levy and Moore could both take to heart.

Do you agree?  What's your favourite of the Booker Shortlist this year?  Let us know your views in the comment, and if you liked the article please do share it on Twitter, Facebook or indeed anywhere else!  Alternatively, follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or just check back soon for more updates.

1 comment:

  1. Don't quite agree, but admire your chutzpah in taking a critical stance to the Booker shortlist (and I love the 'depressing' label in the tagline). Any thoughts about the place of food in the novel? Please come and have a look at mine (thoughts on food) at
    Liked your site and hope to come again.