Futh (his only name) takes a ferry to Europe for a week’s walking holiday in Germany after the break-up of his marriage, to ease his transition from the marital home to his new flat.
Things begin to go wrong from the moment the ferry lands and he drifts along in the wake of a new acquaintance, Carl, who has some sort of presentiment of disaster. Stopping by Carl’s mother’s house causes Futh to be very late arriving at his German hotel, setting up a series of events and misunderstandings that will lead to an inevitably unfortunate ending.
The week is not a success – very little is, in Futh’s life – but it provides the frame for the internal story, which is what the novel is really about. Futh’s life has been one of abandonment, exploitation, deception and lovelessness and his interior world is one that reflects this. Endlessly circling around the literally traumatic departure of his mother – with a shrug and a kiss – when he was a child, Futh’s memories latch on to several recurring themes and symbols, of which the lighthouse is one, as well as being an actual and physical relic.
The novel also tells some of the story of Ester, who, with her husband Bernard, manages the hotel where Futh spends his first and last nights. Ester’s story parallels Futh’s in many ways – rather contrivedly in some places, as with the particular significance of perfume to both of them – but she deals with her miserable situation by casually seducing hotel guests practically under the nose of the insanely jealous but unloving Bernard.
Futh’s lack of affect and inability to imagine others means he is unaware of the emotional undercurrents in the hotel, and completely ignorant of the implications of his own behaviour that will provoke his eventual downfall. In a farcical moment he commits an absent-minded gaffe – a ‘tell’ that meant the ending of the book was more or less predictable for me, rather than ominously threatening, as some reviewers have suggested, though it did add a sort of irritable unease. Literary writers and reviewers might benefit from reading more widely outside the genre and recognising that some devices are already well-used and perhaps need modifying.
However, it is not the outside plot that makes this an interesting novel: the accumulated detail of a disappointed life and the portrait of an emotionally bewildered and humiliated man are the memorable aspects of The Lighthouse.
In a rare moment of self-reflection, which almost encapsulates the novel, Futh sees himself only as refracted through others:
He was a bad listener, apparently, bewilderingly incapable sometimes of following simple instructions. He was always late … And he never apologised, even when he was clearly in the wrong. These were small things but he supposed they built up, amounted to something. He imagined things being different. He had a reverie in which he said and did the right thing and Angela did not leave him. But it was too late, it had already happened.
Futh is in many ways a familiar literary character, with inflections of Dylan’s Mr Jones, Auden’s Unknown Citizen and Miller’s Willy Loman – unhappy, grey men – and as with these, it is the specificity of his misery and anonymity that creates a poignancy amounting to tragedy, the ‘small things’ that build up and amount to something.
The structure, spiralling in and out of obsessive memories and the main events of Futh’s life, triggered by incidents on his walking tour, maintains narrative suspense and sympathy, even though Futh is too damaged to validly experience or express emotion himself. We can pity him for his lack of perception as those around him deceive him, dismiss him and take advantage of him, while at the same time we understand how difficult his emotional apathy must be to deal with.
I didn’t find The Lighthouse ‘creepy’, ‘thrilling’ or ‘ambiguous’ as other reviewers have; the ending was too obviously implicit throughout the book. When the penultimate event came it was almost slapstick, and the last scene, circling back to the ferry and Carl, did not seem open to much interpretation. But I became immersed in Futh’s story and deeply moved by it. It’s a beautifully written novel, if I can’t quite see its Booker potential. Not when it’s up against flawlessly complex and stylistically innovative books like Bring Up the Bodies. But then the Booker has always been a mystery to me.
Alison Moore The Lighthouse, Canongate, 2012, PB, 196pp, $$19.99
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