Dilettante's Diary

JULY 21, 2021

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Reviewed here: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore.

The Lighthouse (Novel) by Alison Moore, 2012


Futh, a Brit in his forties, has undertaken a week's hiking trip through the German countryside. (He has German connections in his family's past.) Nothing much happens along the way, apart from his getting bad blisters on his feet. Meanwhile, he's thinking about his life up to this point. His wife has recently left him. (They were childless.) When he was a young child, his mother left him and his father after constantly telling her husband how much he bored her. A lot of unhappiness, then, in Futh’s life. He seems like a nice enough guy, undemanding and polite, but he doesn't seem to have much luck making connections with people.


The title of the book refers to a little lighthouse that Futh carries in his pocket. It had once contained a bottle of his mother’s special perfume. His keeping the lighthouse seems to be an attempt to hang on to some shred of what might have been happiness once upon a time. A major part of the memory of the lighthouse, though, is the deep cut that he got on his hand when, as a kid, he accidentally broke the perfume bottle.

Interspersed with chapters about him are chapters about a woman who, with her husband, runs a small boutique hotel in Germany. Seems like there might have been some romance and excitement in their early years together. (On taking up with him, she suddenly dumped his brother whom she’d been engaged to.) But now their relationship has soured. Her sex life at the moment amounts to perfunctory intercourse with just about any man who shows up at the hotel. Does her husband know about this? Is the violence lurking under his surly mood going to explode?
A reader keeps wondering if these two stories are ever going to overlap. Is the hiker going to end up at this hotel? Is he going to have sex with the woman?



The stories do eventually meet but not quite in the way you’re expecting. In fact, nothing much turns out the way anybody hopes or expects here. There’s a nihilistic bleakness to the proceedings. Little mysteries keep cropping up without any resolution. For instance, Fust has a strange visit in Utrecht at the home of a man he met on the ferry from England to Holland; you keep thinking something’s going to come of this, but nothing does. In an odd way, one sentence about our man’s peregrinations sums up the whole book: “Seeing some ducks, he breaks up a bread roll and throws the pieces into the water, but the ducks don’t notice and the bits of bread are carried away by the current.”



I admire the succinct, matter-of-fact quality to the writing; there’s very little emoting. But it does surprise me that the book was short-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Did the jurors see more in the book than I do? One touch strikes me as a bit odd: every time the author talks about a man going to bed – either by himself or with someone – we’re told that he takes off his watch and puts it down. Why does this strike the author as so significant about a man’s life? Does it have something to do with the boredom of time’s passing? With a longing for some kind of order and routine in one’s life? Maybe I’m missing the significance that more erudite readers can grasp. I do get the frequent reference to the Venus flytrap plants that the woman keeps in her hotel; it seems to emphasize the vicious, aggressive, doomed quality of life.



But does life look so bleak for some people? If so, would that be enough to validate a book, should any such endorsement be required? But maybe this one has something more going for it. I come away from the book with a strong feeling for Futh. He wouldn’t want me to say I feel sorry for him. But I keep wishing that there could be more happiness for him. I keep thinking about this man who keeps soldiering on bravely in spite of everything. Maybe that’s enough to put a book in the prize-winning category.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com