Salt Publishing, £8.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
The Lighthouse, By Alison Moore
A Man Booker finalist crosses the disputed border between 'literary' and 'genre' fiction
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 15 September 2012
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.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food