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A middle-aged man, recently separated from his wife, stands alone on the deck of a North Sea ferry on his way to a walking holiday in Germany. At his hotel, an inexplicably aggressive barman sends him on his way with no breakfast. As he trudges his route along the Rhine, Futh remembers his failed marriage, and further back to his lonely childhood after his mother had abandoned him, an incident that has haunted him ever since. Back at the hotel, the final destination of Futh’s circular walk, the landlady Ester and her husband Bernard circle each other in the wreck of their own fractured marriage, their power-playing threatening to wound not just themselves but anyone who comes too near.
The Lighthouse is a deceptively quiet novel, but there are dangerous rocks and currents beneath its calm prose. Alison Moore’s debut is published by Salt, a small independent whose profile has skyrocketed thanks to the book’s inclusion on the 2012 Man Booker Prize longlist. Moore is a successful short story writer, and this shows: this is a brief but luminous book, perhaps characteristic of a writer used to fitting lifetimes into small spaces. The prose is sparse but assured, an occasional image shining through brightly: the feeling of heartbreak “peeled and bleeding”, footsteps like “the slow, teasing start of a tap dance”.
It’s a novel about love and the loneliness of memory. Memory is a trap, a maze that we walk away from only to find ourselves back deep in its centre. Futh fantasizes about escape, about leaving everything behind. He buys compasses and guidebooks he never reads for places he doesn’t visit. He checks compulsively for escape routes from hotel rooms. But there is an atmosphere of oppressive inevitability to his journey back to his hotel and back to the snare of his past.
Futh is insubstantial; even his name is no more than a flutter of moth wings, a puff of air from the lips. He’s a sigh of a man—thinning hair, a forgettable face, a collection of memories and obsessions—who leaves little mark on the world. But as we become entangled in his compulsive, circular memories of the small group of people and events who have shaped his life, Futh lodges himself in our heads long after the final paragraph.
Futh is frozen in boyhood; he must keep returning, paused at the point his mother left him. This point is his beacon, the light around which he travels, to which he returns. A scene circles in his head, revealing glimpses and flashes each time it appears.
His father tells him the French term for a stag night is “l’enterrement de vie de garcon“, the burial of a boy’s life. The Lighthouse is the story of the burial of a childhood—under the flood of grief and loneliness caused by a mother’s abandonment, and then by the silt of years of disappointment and isolation that fill the chasm caused by her departure.
The novel ends inevitably, yet shockingly. This is powerful writing likely to shine in your memory for a long time.
The Lighthouse is published today in paperback. Thanks to Salt Publishing for providing a review copy.
The 2012 Man Booker shortlist will be announced on 11 September.