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.
on 17 October 2012
The book was quite promising at the beginning. The writing style is very detailed and clear. The present tense for the actual journey he is undertaking is contrasted against the past tense for his back story, and this is done very well. However, the book is written throughout in very close focus, which gets a little wearisome after a while. The observation of minute details, which at first impresses for the expertise behind it, becomes wearying and relentless after a while.
As other reviewers have said, the main character, Futh, is rather dull, and personally I found his name really irritating by the end of the book. Although bad things happen to him, it is difficult to feel much sympathy towards him because there is little to like about him. The story doesn't really develop - although his past is revealed in bits, it is more or less all the same - people don't like him, and he doesn't have very much fun. The book could begin and end anywhere and the effect would be the same. The ending is a mild blip on a more or less horizontal line.
This haunting novel begins on a ferry on a North Sea crossing where we meet our main character, Futh, a middle-aged man, who is separated from his wife and is going to Germany for a walking holiday. While standing on the deck in the cold night air, Futh's thoughts turn to his mother who left him and his father when Futh was a boy and later, in his cabin, he thinks about his wife and of the end of their marriage and: "His heart feels like the raw meat it is. It feels like something peeled and bleeding. It feels the way it felt when his mother left."
When Futh arrives in Holland he drives to Hellhaus, near Koblenz, in Germany, where he has booked a room in a small hotel, also named Hellhaus (which means 'bright house' or 'lighthouse' in German) where he plans to spend his first and last night. In alternating chapters with Futh's story, we read about Ester, the owner of the hotel, who is married to Bernard, but who sleeps with any of the passing guests who take her fancy.
This is a very short book so I shall be careful not to reveal too much information and spoil the story for prospective readers, however I will just say that as Futh continues his walking holiday, his thoughts continually return to the abandonment of him by his mother, his difficult life with his father after his mother left and the disintegration of his own marriage. His mind also ponders on his childhood friendship with his next door neighbour, Kenny, his anxious aunt, Freda, and the recent unusual encounter he had with Carl, a man he met on the ferry. The lighthouse is a reoccurring device, from the lighthouse mentioned on a picnic in Cornwall when his mother was still with him and his father, the 'Morse Code' torchlight flashes sent back and forth between a young Futh and his friend, Kenny, the name of the hotel where he stays in Germany, and the silver lighthouse trinket that he keeps as a memento of his mother.
Evocative and beautifully written in a spare and simple prose, this is a haunting, sombre and somewhat unsettling story that pulls you in quietly, yet powerfully; I downloaded this onto my Kindle early this morning and read it from the beginning to the rather surprising end in one sitting. We know it is on the longlist for the Booker Prize; it deserves to make it onto the shortlist and I, for one, very much hope it does.
on 3 October 2012
I was greatly looking forward to reading The Lighthouse, as I've long admired Salt Publishing (think Tobias Hill, think Paul Magrs)and was glad that such a lively and risk-taking publisher had a novel selected for the Man Booker shortlist. Most of the reviews were 5-star, and I was sure that mine would be too - especially on the evidence of Alison Moore's terrifying short story 'When the door closed, it was dark' (Nightjar).
So maybe my expectations were too high. Though - should they not be high, for a Booker shortlisted? Instead of being gripped by it, I found it contrived, repetitive, and lacking in proper context. Futh is half-German, for instance, but that has had little effect on his character or outlook. Worse, when he gets to Germany one would scarcely know he was outside Britain: he's a nervous driver, yet manages the autobahns with no problem, readily overtaking in his right-hand drive car. His landlady even reads 'Mills and Boon'. These may seem like quibbles, but given the detail - to me excessive detail - of what he eats, what he sees on the ferry, each bedroom he occupies in the hostelries he stays at by the Rhine, they left me mistrusting the author's purpose. I wasn't there with Futh; I was observing him being observed by the writer.
The result, for me, was tricksy, rather than engaging or frightening. I was sad to be so disappointed. I've also read Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies, and I have to say that would be my clear and outright Man Booker winner.
on 23 January 2013
Putting it bluntly, this book is about the inadequate, lonely and miserable lives lived by people who have suffered inadequate parenting. Critics who give it the bird because they do not like the characters are missing the point: the holes in people's lives create people with inconsistent moral values and unexamined lives. On the whole, many of such people are neither admirable nor easy to get along with. Neither are they likely to be grotesquely bad enough to become super-villains; this is reality.
I was surprised to see such a limited vocabulary on offer. From the perspective of a language school, however, this offers an unusual strength: a short modern novel which can be read by students with relatively low levels of English but adult sensibilities.
I have stuck to a four-star rating because while I think that this is an excellent novel, I just do not see it as offering enough in terms of plot, scenery or characterisation to really be seen as a top read. It was never going to win the Booker, but I certainly do not see any serious objections to its shortlisting. It makes an honest attempt to introduce a serious idea in a novel way.
on 17 August 2012
I loved this book. Devoured it in one reading, the author's descriptive text draws you in, smells, sounds, the whole journey. I can't wait to read it again, am sure there is so much more to discover second time around. Congratulations to Alison Moore and so deserved of a place on the Man Booker long list, fingers crossed for the short list!
It's hard to pinpoint how I feel about this book. Firstly, I can see why it has been shortlisted for lots of awards. It is clever, and playful in its construction if not its subject matter. It is beautifully, tightly written, and there is not a wasted word in the whole book. It is thoughtful and eerie, and leaves you pondering it long after you have read it.
On the other hand, having read it, I found myself wondering why I had stuck with it.
It tells the story of Futh, a bunglingly incompetent, lonely, emotionally illiterate man in middle age, whose wife has left him, and who goes on a walking holiday in Germany to reinvigorate himself before coming home to start a new life. It also tells the story of Ester, a blowsy, alcoholic, German land lady, whose life has turned out to be full of disappointment and haunted with a misery she is incapable of dealing with and blots out with sex and gin. Ester and Futh's lives intertwine and their chance encounter leads to disaster.
The story is horrible in the way it maps out the futility and drab misery of wasted human existence, both Futh and Ester's. Its sense of impending doom gets more and more persistent as the story unfolds and you find yourself willing Futh in particular, to wake up to himself and his life. As it is, there is nothing to be done, and the consequence is a car crash of a book that leaves you feeling unsettled and sad with the world.
This is an incredibly powerful, sad story. A beautiful, if austere book. And an amazingly talented writer. If it is a first novel, I guess it will not be the last because this is the kind of writing that is here to stay and not the 'flash in the pan' type. Other reviews have summed-up the story, a lonely man, recently separated from his wife, goes on a walking holiday in Germany, along the Rhine. We also follow in alternate chapters, the fate of Hotelkeeper, Ester. Two very lonely souls in different ways, and then a brief encounter that might have unforeseen consequences...It is a very quiet yet intense novel. The sheer beauty of the writing is that you never notice that it is 'written' at all, as in all really good books. Yet so much is said while focusing on very small details, trivial happenings, seemingly trite informations. As Futh progresses on his walk, he reminisces on the sad circumstances of his life, his mother leaving, then his wife, and how he never succeeded at anythying. He is everybody's failings incarnation. He probably is also what you could call today autistic at some level, too shy, too introvert, never really able to communicate. It is a hero (or anti-hero rather) that you can identify with quickly. Well I did anyway. The storyline reminded me of 'The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry' by Rachel Joyce, another sad little man going on a long walk to find himself, but 'The Lighthouse' is like the other side of the coin. It remains dark and unredeemed...Interestingly they have both been selected for the Booker long list. Personally while having loved Harold Fry very much, I would say that the 'Lighthouse' is of superior writing. Being no literary critic I could not explain why, but the sparse, economical yet crystal clear style goes a long way. It is a book you will quietly take into yourself and meditate upon. A book you will come back to often, if not physically, at least in your mind, where Futh, with or without bagage, will carry on walking for some time. It is not a comfort read, rather the opposite. It is a book that asks questions and bring no answer (Harold Fry did). It is quietly disquieting and haunting, uneasy. This is a rare gift, in any given art form, to be able to reach the universal while talking about the mundane. I bet some more 'noisy' more flashy book will probably win the Booker, but I hope that many many people will come accross this very very worthy one.
There's a line in here somewhere that I can't recall exactly but it goes something like this: The beam of a lighthouse might feel welcoming but it isn't; it's supposed to be a warning. Sums this little book up quite nicely.
This is a wonderful little book - it's a tense little pageturner, actually, for a Booker novel, and it's only when you step away and appraise it in the round that it strikes you how fantastic it is: the slow build up of memories, scenes, scents, that knock off against one another and illuminate things that have gone before. The prose is simple and unflashy, like a piece of white cotton cloth that you soon realise that, in context, is a funeral veil. It's tense a suspenseful and the tension gets to be unbearable as the book nears its end. As you feel the lead character swirling unnoticed around the plughole, waiting to be dragged down, it's hard not to be pulled on too and race to finish the book.
It's full of themes and images. It's about grief and loss and repression and mothers and sons and brothers and marriages and little traumas. It's about solitariness and, in no small way, it's about being downtrodden by life, but it is not even nearly opressive or cloying in that way. It's only flaw is that it seems to leave too slight a footprint during the time you're reading it.
It's a little work of genius that builds up it's colours like moths fluttering scattily round a bulb. It's sad, though same may find it a little bleak I suppose. Kafka said a great book should be an axe that breaks the ice inside us; in that case this is a stilleto knife. The main message for Futh, and thereby us, is that, unlike beacons for ships asea, there is not always any warning at all.
on 16 August 2012
Anyone who has read Alison Moore's short stories will know that she packs an incredible amount of subtext into her prose. It's not so much a matter of reading between the lines as of reading between the words. The power in her writing is in the extent to which she trusts and allows the reader to complete the picture, sometimes to shocking effect.
In The Lighthouse, she introduces the oddly-named Futh, a middle-aged man adrift following the break-up of his marriage. As he travels through Germany on a supposedly restorative walking trip, he is haunted by thoughts of his childhood, and the mother who also abandoned him. The one tangible he has of her is the silver lighthouse perfume bottle he stole from her many years before. The lighthouse is a recurring motif throughout, as is the idea of scent and the role it plays in evoking memory.
Alongside Futh's story is that of Ester, the landlady of the first hotel he visits, (Hellehaus, Lighthouse) who is herself 'adrift', given to playing games with the lives of those around her in order to bring some sort of meaning to her own. Her actions, and the naivety of the hapless Futh will have devastating consequences when their two lives once again converge...
The Lighthouse is a stunning book. Read it. Then read it again.