This year the Booker shortlist was a revelation. Not because of any controversy such as the type that marred last year’s list, or due to the names strangely omitted (Zadie Smith to name just one), but because of some names that found themselves nestled in between the ones everyone knows. Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse is a debut novel published by the small, independent publisher, Salt.
Along with two other novels published by small publishers on this year’s list, it seemed that this year it was a battle between heavyweight publishers and smaller independent outfits. Despite Hilary Mantel’s victory with Bringing up the Bodies, published by HarperCollins, this year’s contest sparked an important, and timely, discussion about the inclusion, and merit of small independent publishers.
When I read about the shortlist I found myself immediately drawn to The Lighthouse, for a woman who has spent countless hours reading and re-reading Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, it was just too enticing to turn down. The Lighthouse is the story of Futh, a middle aged, lonely man whose wife has just left him. To recover from the breakdown of this marriage, he decides to go on a walking holiday in Germany. However, as the story unfolds, it is not merely about what lies ahead, but also what lies behind.
In a series of flashbacks, the reader is presented with Futh’s tragic past: his abandonment by his mother, the friends he has never really had, his career in synthetic perfume creation and his attempts to recreate the smell of his mother, his wife’s miscarriages, and the inevitable marriage breakdown. The real magic of this novel is its ability to create both the past and the present, both of which appear to run alongside each other, informing each character as the story runs its course, but never feeling like a gimmick.
The Lighthouse is a melancholy story, and one that doesn’t have much of a silver lining. However, it is never melodramatic in tone and Futh is never depicted as a pathetic character, merely a real one, with faults and the endless burden of memory. Interspersed with Futh’s story is that of Ester, a lonely, bored hotelier who sleeps with her clientele and has a past almost as tragic as Futh’s.
Ester’s story, though equally as well written, often felt too controlled, too strikingly similar to Futh’s that her past, and therefore her present, wasn’t quite so plausible. However, the carefully controlled distance between the reader and Ester pays off in the end as the two characters’ stories converge, the shocking climax made more so by the ambiguity surrounding Ester’s character.
Alison Moore’s prose is sparse. There are no lengthy descriptions or unnecessary words. She is a writer who can control her characters and her plot well, and although not a thriller in the usual sense, it certainly had the pace of one and I found myself staying up late to finish it. I found the novel unsettling, and was surprised to have found it echoing in my brain even after I had finished it. It was the symbols that caught my imagination; the whole novel is full of them. They burst from every page; the symbol of the lighthouse perfume bottle which Futh’s mother owned, and which Ester also now owns, violets, shoes, circles and memory all wrestle with one another, each vying for importance.
These symbols simultaneously tell and overwhelm the story, creating patterns in the novel that are constantly overlapping each other. This is both unsettling and comforting, as if the story itself is both predictable but also surprising because the symbols can never be wholly trusted. The reader’s memory of these symbols is only as good as the each of the character’s interpretations of them, and I found this to be one of the most interesting aspects of the novel.
The Lighthouse is a novel that manages to push the importance of the past to the fore, and allows a compelling and tragic story to unfold naturally, and for that it deserved to take on the big names, even if ultimately it didn’t quite get to the top.