The Setup: The Lighthouse begins on a North Sea ferry, on whose blustery outer deck stands Futh, a middle-aged, recently separated man heading to Germany for a restorative walking holiday. Spending his first night in Hellhaus at a small, family-run hotel, he finds the landlady hospitable but is troubled by an encounter with an inexplicably hostile barman.
In the morning, Futh puts the episode behind him and sets out on his week-long circular walk along the Rhine. As he travels, he contemplates his childhood; a complicated friendship with the son of a lonely neighbour; his parents’ broken marriage and his own. But the story he keeps coming back to, the person and the event affecting all others, is his mother and her abandonment of him as a boy, which left him with a void to fill, a substitute to find. He recalls his first trip to Germany with his newly single father. He is mindful of something he neglected to do there, an omission which threatens to have devastating repercussions for him this time around. At the end of the week, Futh, sunburnt and blistered, comes to the end of his circular walk, returning to what he sees as the sanctuary of the Hellhaus hotel, unaware of the events which have been unfolding there in his absence.
This review was published simultaneously on the Literary Hoarders on 24/08/2012.
So, immediately, you think of the striking similarity in the premise of The Lighthouse as the one in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (anotherMan Booker 2012 Long List Nominee). Although, I can’t address this too much, as I’m only about 70 pages in to Harold Fry. However, it does veer off in any similarity as you read further through the pages.
This is a story of Futh whom is off on a walking tour in Germany. Futh is an exceptionally socially awkward man (much like Harold Fry?) and the use of his name often in the beginning leads you to believe he’s a slow, dim-witted, unlovable and friendless man. He spends much time reminiscing about the abandonment by his mother and the failure of his marriage, the relationship with his father and his “best friend’s” mother/neighbour Gloria. (Best friend is in quotation marks owing to the fact that Kenny is not really a best friend, or much of a friend really, but was the only one that Futh considered as such.) Although, unlike Harold Fry, this story does not focus on the journey but is more of a character study of the predominant characters Futh and the hotel keeper, Ester.
Futh in all of his glorious awkwardness is forever consumed by the abandonment of his mother at a young age. He keeps her parfume container (a silver lighthouse) with him always and often stops to smell the violet scent in the long-empty container. He replays the last afternoon as a family at a lighthouse over and over again upon his walking tour. After a particularly long and drawn out history lesson on lighthouses by his father, Futh’s mother gazes at him and says “do you have any idea how much you bore me?” And from that moment, Futh understood his family would be together no longer. Moving to reflection upon his marriage, he is married to a woman that barely remembers him from school and cares even less for him in marriage, Futh often compares her to his mother and is saddened by their separation.
Ester is married to Bernard and together they run the inn where Futh stays during his walking tour. She is an un-satisfied, middle-aged woman that is (quietly) abused by her husband. She wears heavy make up and stillettos and has meaningless sex with the men staying at the inn. Ester has a lighthouse parfume container as well, but hers is wooden, and not the expensive silver container that Futh carries.
The series of unintended circumstances between Futh and Ester are excellent, they are brilliant actually. Futh remains so true to his character that he is completely and utterly unaware of how and what these small situations and interactions with Ester mean for her. Wait for it. Wait for it. Just superbly written with nuance and skill.
There are any number of symbolic items and references littered throughout this novel to review, research and discuss that would make any English literature teacher sing with joy. Just a few to ponder: lighthouses; venus fly traps; scent; the perspective and portrayal of the men and women in this story. Just the title, The Lighthouse and the usage of lighthouses throughout the story would fill days of discussion.
What was also striking to me was how Moore portrays the men in the novel, outside of Futh, they are simmering with hate, jealousy and are abusive to the women in their lives. The two main women, Ester and Gloria, are exceptionally lonely and desperate women that use sex to fill the vast void of emptiness in their lives. (Both women have a collection of venus fly traps as well.)
For the 2012 competition, the Man Booker judges appear to be choosing books upon which protaganists are finding and examining oneself, going off on a journey to reflect, discover and examine and also uncovering the many layers of the human condition, such as despair, depression and loneliness. There is also the obvious bent towards new and fresh authors publishing out of independent publishing houses. The Lighthouse, which is Alison Moore’s literary debut, hits on all points and was one of the best Man Booker Long Listed 2012 books I’ve read so far. Hopefully this one is firmly placed on the Short List as it is a well-worthy fit in that group of six. I changed my earlier and anticipated grade of 3.5 to a 4 when I reached The Lighthouse‘s conclusion. I may even need to bump it up just a tad to that 4.5 grade. It’s a good ending. Wait for it.