A debut novel from a high-achieving independent publisher, The Lighthouse has surprised some observers with its place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Disquieting, deceptive, crafted with a sly and measured expertise, Alison Moore's story could certainly deliver a masterclass in slow-burn storytelling to those splashier literary celebs who take more pains over a pyrotechnic paragraph than a watertight plot. But it may also feed a long-standing Booker quarrel: the one that sets so-called "literary" against "genre" fiction.
For a key component in this novel's mood is our uncertainty about what kind of story we are reading. A lonely, diffident industrial chemist (he concocts artificial smells), our protagonist Futh tries to heal the wounds of separation from his wife with a hiking holiday in the Rhineland - his father's family is German. In flight from everyday unhappiness, he sets out on the ferry looking forward to "a week of good sausage and deep sleep".
On board he meets Carl, off to visit his controlling mother in Utrecht, who asks if Futh ever gets "a bad feeling about something that's going to happen". Futh has never quite escaped a broken childhood, rendered here in metallic, melancholy shards of flashback. His mother walked out, leaving little behind but lacerating memories and the lighthouse-shaped container for a violet-scented German perfume that Futh cherishes as memorial and talisman. His father, chilly and mocking, has stalled his son's progress to adulthood. There's something unfinished, half-baked, in Futh, an "awkwardness... around women in particular". His marriage happens almost by accident, the toll of miscarriages and his own misery drive his wife Angela away; even his profession – distilling memory-laden scents – signals a shackling to the past.
The first stop on his riverside walking tour, in a town named Hellhaus, introduces another ill-matched couple, the hotel's proprietors: blowsy Ester, who pursues joyless daytime sex with her guests, and saturnine, resentful Bernard. On each stage of Futh's circular ramble we learn more of his, and Ester's, histories of hurt, glimpsed via Moore's pointed, deadpan and elliptical prose. But we also sense that what began as a dual narrative of family breakdown and regret has strayed into the uncanny forest where fairy-tales flower in darkness. Moore's light touch leads us by degrees into these eerie woods where grim (or Grimm) tales may lurk. What will await Futh on his return to the Hellhaus hotel?
From a technical point-of-view, the peculiar achievement of The Lighthouse lies in the nervelessly skilful fusion of its emotions and its actions: the "literary" dimension of Futh's nostalgia and obsession, and the "genre" machine that, notch by notch, cranks up foreboding and suspense. Because of who he is, because of how he feels, the monster stalks him. The finale delivers a neat (perhaps overly neat) QED. A novel that opens with an epigraph by Muriel Spark may close by reminding you not just of Roald Dahl, but Stephen King.