Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

"The Lighthouse" by Alison Moore (Salt, 2012)

Futh is about to separate from his wife. He decides to take a week-long circular walking trip in Germany. When he was still school-age, just after his mother left his father, his father took him on a hike in Germany, the last time he'd been on a ferry, so he has opportunities to reminisce.

He starts talking to a man caled Carl in the ferry. They get on, and Futh drives them to Carl's pampering mother where he has a snack before continuing his journey alone. On his first night back on dry land Futh stays at the "Hellhaus" hotel in Hellhaus, where he'll also spend his last night. Some chapters are from Ester's PoV. She's the hotelier, casually unfaithful. Her husband, Bernard, is rude and sometimes violent to her lovers (assumed and otherwise). In the penultimate chapter, having struggled on the walk, injuring feet and hands, Futh strays into Ester's bedroom. At the end of the book, Carl can't see Futh on the return ferry where they'd planned to meet again. Carl "cannot even remember the man's name. It was a name which makes him think of froth, and the powdery wings of a moth" (p.182).

The characters don't do much thinking or Proustian reflection. Though there's much about the past, it's actions rather than thoughts that are recalled, and though Futh always checks new rooms for future escape routes, the momentum's very much centred on the here and now. It works well. Here for example is the novel's start

Futh stands on the ferry deck, holding on to the cold railings with his soft hands. The wind pummels his body through his new anorak, deranges his thinning hair and brings tears to his eyes. It is summer and he was not expecting this. He has not been on a ferry since he was twelve, when he was abroad for the first time with his father

The paragraph begins with the main character's name, then zooms out to the place and the person's body. Then the time, then the past and other people. Neat. Less felicitous is a sentence from the 2nd paragraph - "When they sat down, the lights were still up, and there was no one else in there" - the "down ... up ... there ... there" sequence is awkward, and on p.7 there's "sorting out what to keep and what to throw away. The ferry ploughs on across the North Sea, and home gets further and further away" where the repeated sentence-ending draws attention. Minor quibbles.

Kenny and Futh have known each other since infant school -

Kenny and Futh used to stand at their bedroom windows at lights out, facing one another across their back gardens, each with a torch, flashing messages through the darkness. If like like Morse code except that it didn't mean anything. Kenny would flash-flash-flash and Futh would flash-flash-flash back; Kenny would flash-pause-flash and Futh would send it back. Eventually the game would stop. it was, for Futh, like looking at a lighthouse on the horizon at night. There was this flashing of light and then nothing, and you waited for the next flash, looking at where the light had been and where it would be again but you were looking at darkness (p.10)

I like that. Kenny's mother, Gloria, has an affair with Futh's father. Futh marries Angela, who has an affair with Kenny that might have become physical on the wedding night.

Lighthouses recur, part of the web of symbolism -

  • He carries a silver model lighthouse wherever he goes. It used to contain perfume. It was his mother's. It was taken by Futh's father from his father's brother, "uncle Ernst", without permission.
  • "Hellhaus" means "lighthouse"
  • He went with his parents near a lighthouse on the day when they split up. The event is revisited more than once.
  • Ester has the wooden version of the lighthouse. She steals Futh's silver one.

Repeatedly we're told that there are still shipwrecks despite lighthouses being built. There are many parallels between the characters - Ester has a Venus flytrap. So has Gloria. Gloria's has a moth in it. In Futh's hotel room, a moth lands on a book. Ester likes perfumes. Ether's mother sold perfumes. Futh stole his mother's perfume. His job involves synthesising smells. His mother smoked, Kenny smoked, Ester smokes - all of them secretively at times. Futh wants to be mothered, and likes older women pampering him. He marries a woman who has his mother's name. He's left by his wife for the same reason that his mother left his father. There are repeated moths, pink dresses, and childlessness. Are Ester's and Futh's families connected?

Chapter 4 ends rather differently to any other chapter.

In the night, there will be a storm. It will be brief, if a little violent, and hardly anyone will even realise it has occurred, although they might hear it raging, thundering, in their dreams.
In the morning, by the time people are up and about, the sun will be out again, and the rain-soaked pavements will be dry, and there will be very little evidence of damage.

I think the novel has something for everyone. There's crisp characterisation, a plot (it would be ironic indeed if Futh at the end falls victim to violence because he explored, because he was suspected of sexual adventure and cuckoldry), and an auteurish control over a mesh of repeated motifs.

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