Book Review: He Wants by Alison Moore

hewantsAlison Moore’s second novel is a sparse yet sculpted study of what happens when the routines of daily life fall away. We follow Lewis Sullivan in the aftermath of his wife’s death and his retirement from a lifelong career as an R.E teacher as he struggles to make sense of the life he has lived and the unstructured existence he lives now. Holed up in a small house in a small town, he has little appetite for food or anything else, spending most of his days alone, with occasional ‘trips’ to the outside bins. Looking back on key moments in his life forces him to contend with its blank spots and lacunae; he begins to hunger for more.

Moore uses desire as a prism through which to explore Lewis’s life and it’s unravelling. Each chapter focuses on an aspect of his desire, past and present, satiated or otherwise: ‘he does not want soup,’ ‘He Wanted to Live in Australia,’ and ‘He Wants to Feel an Earthquake.’ The taut prose, like these chapter titles and the title of the novel itself, explores the meaning and uncertainty hidden in the banal details of everyday life with understated skill. Here, for example, on why Lewis does not want to eat the soup his daughter, Ruth, brings him every day:

What Lewis really wants is one of Edie’s steak and kidney puddings her chicken curry, her hotpot… He does not want soup but Ruth brings it anyway and Lewis eats it… More often than not he eats it cold, straight from the fridge, minutes before she arrives to take away the empty tub and leave him with another.

The deliberate sparseness the prose and the frequency of short, declarative sentences, create the uneasy sense that these everyday items are both specific surface realities and symbolic of a wider shadow reality. This made the novel as entertaining as it was gripping; Moore walks a tightrope between tragedy-cum-thriller and deadpan comedy and she does not fall.

The key to Lewis’s transformation and burgeoning self-knowledge comes in a reckoning with Sydney, an old school friend who reappears unexpectedly in his life. Sydney is the opposite of Lewis in that he knows what he wants and he goes after it, regardless of the consequences. Moore opens the chapter with his return to their sleepy small town, inhabiting his point of view at such a distance that we believe in him without knowing why he has returned or why he has to hide from certain people. These unanswered questions cast a subtle shadow over the rest of the book, lending Lewis’s hum-drum wanderings an air of menace and mystery. As in her Booker shortlisted debut, The Lighthouse, Moore marries the meticulous plotting of the thriller with a distinctive pared-down style; Moore trusts the reader to find their own answers to the existential questions which emerge from her work’s silences as elegantly as they do its words.