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Violet scented loneliness
on 15 August 2012
The Lighthouse is an unusual and terribly sad novel. It is also rather good.
The novel tells two stories in interleaved chapters. The odd numbered chapters tell the story of a man called Futh who is going on a walking holiday in Germany, somewhat half-heartedly. The even numbered chapters tell the story of Ester, a guest house landlady.
Futh is lonely; he is middle aged, separated from his wife Angela and seems to lack any real support network, either in the form of friends or family. He has a back story, but very little present story. He is simply adrift, waiting to see which way the tide sends him, his only anchor is a silver lighthouse in his pocket. The opening chapter, set on the deck of a car ferry plying the Harwich to Hook of Holland route tells us that this is unlikely to be a story of ostentatious wealth and splendour.
Meanwhile, Ester, the landlady of the first and last hotel on Futh's planned walking route also has a small lighthouse. Moreover, her guesthouse is called the Hellehaus - a literal but incorrect translation of "light house" in German. She, too, is lonely and bobbing in the tide, not going anywhere but quietly leading the life of Molly Bloom. This use of repeated imagery is a real trademark in the novel. Whether it is lighthouses, violets, bathrooms or a host of other images, they keep cropping up over and over again. At first this feels uncomfortable but by the end of the short novel, it is a source of immense power. Moreover, the story keeps returning to the same few incidents, each time offering just a little bit more information or a slightly different perspective. It builds into something very simple but very evocative
The overall impression is deeply melancholy. We have a sense of lonely people, sometimes living in company, sometimes clinging to fond memories with sentimentality whilst their lives slowly decompose. Youthful hope becomes middle aged routine becomes old age anaesthetic.
The writing is sublime. Spare, sometimes straightforward and sometimes quite opaque. But regardless of the overall transparency, the immediate images of the room or the street or the clifftop are crystal clear, conjured from very few but very well chosen words. The people, too, feel real. They have complex emotions and don't always do logical or sensible things, but they always convince. As they move around one another in still, empty spaces they create a dramatic tension that the reader can almost touch. We wish their lives could be better.
And there is a better life to be had. Futh's childhood nemesis Kenny demonstrates that with enough charisma, it is possible to turn even modest opportunities into apparent success.
It's difficult to say more without spoiling the finely crafted sequencing; without dampening the powder. Suffice to say that it captured the 2012 Booker prize jury's collective imagination. Hopefully it will progress through to the shortlist.