Alison Moore’s novel (shortlisted for the Booker Prize but beaten by Hilary Mantel’s Bringing up the Bodies, which I won’t be reading) is a brief, carefully crafted story that I suspect will haunt me for longer than it took to read it. Moore is clearly a great storyteller and it’s hard to put this book down as innocuous events build up to an inevitable yet shocking conclusion.
The chapters alternate between two characters, Futh and Esther, whose paths cross only twice for a matter of moments but with devastating consequences for at least one of them. Neither is particularly likeable, which is perhaps why they inspire pity rather than sympathy, but as their flashbacks reveal and explain facets of their characters, both are all too credible. They are products and prisoners of their pasts, seemingly doomed to repeat their mistakes; both do try to take control of their lives and Futh’s futile efforts are particularly poignant as fate (in the form of a missed turning, a flat tyre) thwarts him.
His inability to escape the past is echoed in the more subtle of the novel’s two key metaphors. Like the eponymous Harold in another of this year’s Booker nominations, Futh is on a journey that is both literal and symbolic. Unfortunately this journey is circular; Futh is heading back to where he started. The other symbol is, of course, the lighthouse itself, which occurs in various forms from the hotel Hellhaus (which translates as bright, or light, house) to Futh’s continual misreading of situations, seeing only the welcoming light and never the warning. Attempting to find his talisman, a lighthouse-shaped perfume bottle, finally draws Futh into dangerous waters. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
Perfume and scents in general are also important in this novel and they permeate the writing. Futh is a maker of artificial scents and through her sensuous description of various odours, Alison Moore almost does his job for him. The reader catches a whiff of the coffee, the orange (and a few less pleasant smells), adding to the oppressive tension that slowly builds as the novel progresses. (These passages reminded me of Patrick Süskind’s brilliant Perfume, which is one of my favourite books.)
A glance at Moore’s website suggest that her back catalogue favours the gothic and/or uncanny (a genre sometimes considered not to be ‘proper’ literature.). There are elements of this in The Lighthouse too, which may be why it didn’t win the Booker. It is creeping and disturbing, but without the melodrama. As a self-confessed gothic fan – I’ll fight anyone who tries to exclude Mary Shelley from the canon – I think Moore has the balance just about right.