Death and the Seaside by Alison Moore review — ‘a new English grotesque’

A directionless young woman is manipulated by her landlady in this multi-layered tale

Alison Moore wrote a wonderfully creepy debut novel, The Lighthouse, that made the 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlist and was published by a small imprint. It follows an odd and lonely man, Futh, as he takes an ill-fated walking holiday in Germany. That was followed by He Wants (2014), another psychological exploration, this time of a widower losing himself in the small town in which he has always lived.

In Moore’s third novel, Death and the Seaside, the setting is again significant: a Midlands town “about as far away from the coast” as it is possible to be.

The author has layered her work so that we are hyper-aware of its mannered oddness from the start. Death and the Seaside begins in a fiction within the fiction. The opening chapter is about a directionless young woman, Susan, who has just moved to the seaside, but she is the creation of a directionless would-be writer, Bonnie Falls, who has set her story in the fictional resort of Seatown.

Bonnie is, at 30, a disappointment to everyone including herself. Moore is brutally funny and brusque: “She majored in English, because it had always been her best subject and because she had managed to get a B at A level. It was also her native language.”

Having been ejected by her parents, Bonnie moves into a flat that is full of other people’s detritus. It “looked like an art installation, something that a person might stand in front of at an end of year show, trying to see some meaning or message in it”. She cannot make anything her own, it seems — including her flat and her fiction.

The landlady of this weird apartment is Sylvia Slythe, a sinister and controlling older woman who introduces herself by holding out “a long-fingered, long-nailed hand”. The names are significant — Slyvia Slythe is as bad as she sounds and Bonnie’s surname, “Falls”, is a play on the psychological experiments that Sylvia is about to inflict as she tests her subject’s suggestibility: “Did you have the dream Susan has about jumping out of your bedroom window?” Sylvia asks Bonnie none-too-subtly after reading her fiction.

Moore conjures Bonnie’s fragile mental state — she is an anxious woman reluctantly moving away from home. While her mother is a noted skiing champion, Bonnie admits that “I can’t ski, and I don’t fly. I avoid heights”. We learn that some of Bonnie’s fear can be traced back to a childhood encounter with the Dr Slythe, who was at the time testing the power of subliminal messaging by showing videos including the commands to “FAIL” and “JUMP” to groups of townspeople who had responded to her advertisements in a local paper.

As Sylvia writes in a mini-memoir (another layer within the book): “All sorts of things which used to be allowed in experimental psychology are unfortunately no longer permitted, formally.”

Sylvia reads Bonnie’s story and persuades her that she will get over her writer’s block by taking a trip to the seaside. As Sylvia cheerily points out: “We’ll be one another’s travelling companions, like in Rebecca. I’ll be Mrs Van Hopper and you’ll be my young lady companion on the Côte d’Azur.”

We know, of course, that this won’t end well for someone (Death and the Seaside is the title, after all). Moore is playing games with the reader in a nod to the popular current “domestic noir” genre — novels that are heirs to Rebecca and which feature a potentially murderous spouse, friend or neighbour.

While she is both gifted stylist and talented creator of a new English grotesque, Moore’s technique left me admiring, but also uninvolved. The oddness of it all, and the shifts in narrative, gives a remote feeling, leaving the reader adrift at times. And that, in turn, may be Moore’s intention all along.

Death and the Seaside, by Alison Moore, Salt, RRP£8.99, 192 pages

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