A masterly tale of melancholia

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

FICTION:Alison Moore’s debut novel, a meandering walk on the dark side, is deservedly on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize

The Lighthouse By Alison Moore, Salt, 182pp. £8.99

FUTH IS MIDDLE-AGED and newly separated from his wife, who has had enough. For him, flight appears to offer some chance of recovery, though full resurgence seems too ambitious. He sets off on a walking tour of the Rhineland; all very organised, a bit tame, but then Futh, passive and defeated from childhood, is like that.

The Lighthouse, Alison Moore’s melancholic debut, would eventually have found admiring readers through the great network of word of mouth. That it has been shortlisted, deservedly, for the Man Booker Prize will quicken the process. This is a beautiful short novel sustained by muted urgency, nuance and the exactness with which Moore conveys the paralysing levels of depression that Futh battles. In order to deal with the present he attempts to make sense of his past, which refuses to fade away. His thoughts throb with humiliating episodes from his boyhood, cut short when his bored, dissatisfied mother left, leaving his father to voice his anger at his only audience, the bewildered boy.

When asked what he does for a living, the adult Futh replies with the stiltedness that shapes his every utterance: “I work in the manufacture of synthetic smells.” This is not surprising, as it is scent, that most evocative stimulus to memory, which preoccupies him. He carries with him an old perfume bottle, a talisman of sorts, which came to his family indirectly and was given to Futh’s mother before it was claimed by him. It is a silver lighthouse designed for phials of perfume. The lighthouse both symbolises and features in the various betrayals that dominate the narrative. It should have been returned to Futh’s granduncle, but never was. Ultimately this object will acquire devastating relevance in an impressively understated study of contrasting forms of loneliness and need.

Moore places her traumatised central character at the mercy of unrelenting displacement. Along with yearning for his dismissive wife and the mother who abandoned him, there is his vaguely evolved cultural legacy. His paternal father, a German, had come to England, yet aside from the name Futh, neither his father, nor Futh himself, have any sense of being German.

In the powerful opening sequence, Futh, standing on the deck of the ferry bringing him to the European mainland, holds onto the railings and recalls a similar journey, years earlier, with his father, shortly after his mother’s departure. Both trips take place during the summer, yet are marked by rough seas. When Futh examines his pale, tired face in the cabin mirror he imagines that his holiday will revive him. In Futh, Moore has created a character so emotionally pulverised that he can only function through ritual and a false sense of order.

Tiny details acquire immense importance; they distract him from his thoughts, but only briefly.

Having stopped off in Utrecht with a fellow passenger he had met on the ferry, Futh drives on to Germany. When he finally arrives at the guesthouse, “He feels again the tipping sensation he has experienced on and off since leaving the ferry. It feels like his soul is sliding out and then sliding back in again.”

Futh, with his raw, battered heart and awkward manners, could easily be a comic caricature. But he is not. His agony is heartfelt. There is something deeply touching about his walking tour, which settles into an endurance test of blistered feet, sunburn, his poor spoken German and several missed meals. Fretting appears to be second nature to him: “In the small, low-ceilinged bathroom, Futh fills his tooth glass at the sink and takes big gulps before realising that he is drinking water from the hot tap. He has heard the stories about people finding dead pigeons in hot water tanks. He pours away what is left and refills his glass with cold water . . . He has got into the habit of always determining an escape route from a room in which he is staying, imagining emergency scenarios . . .”

There is a subplot involving the unhappy woman married to the owner of the guesthouse. She too is depressed, yet her response to her situation lacks the pathos that tracks Futh.

Bullied by his father, taunted by the pushy, though kindly, neighbour next door, whose son proves a bad friend, Futh is a tragic figure. There is something profoundly moving about his keeping stick insects, which he must then entrust to his ex-wife when he moves into a flat.

The couple had failed to have a child together, and Moore leaves it obvious in her wry, gentle way, that this was probably for the best. The Lighthouse has a European quality, particularly in its tone and mood, which at times approaches that of the wonderful Norwegian writer Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18 (2008), except that poor Futh is irreparably damaged. Moore’s understanding of Futh is unsentimental and astute. As a boy he had hidden in his mother’s closet among her clothes; as a man he wanders into a dangerous situation. It could be argued that some of the symbolism is heavy-handed. Why two lighthouse perfume bottles? Why two needy, despairing female characters keen on Venus flytraps?

These are tiny quibbles. Futh is Everyman at his most vulnerable, and this intelligent novel belies its brevity. Immense truths are contained within it, as is an eloquent sense of the fear that undercuts many lives. It is an excellent story, painstakingly written in a clear prose that rises quite brilliantly in the fraught penultimate chapter.

It does no disservice to Moore to suggest that it will make an even better movie, such is the wealth of feeling expressed by Moore’s many instances of silent observation. A subtle actor would easily bring Futh to life on the screen because he is already so desperately, believably real.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent

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