To Hellhaus and back

The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore, Salt Publishing, RRP£8.99, 192 pages

Futh is odd. We never learn our man’s first name, and that seems appropriate. Futh is distanced from others, traumatised, yet oddly innocent as he blunders through life.

Alison Moore’s debut novel The Lighthouse, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, (the shortlist will be announced next week) is a slim one. It is written in sparse prose under simple chapter headings – “The Ferry”, “Coffee”, “Charms” – as if the contents of Futh’s head have been tipped on to the page.

Everything about Futh is reactive, inert, terrified. Having agreed to separate from his wife, he does nothing about finding a new place to live. “In the meantime, Angela was packing his belongings into self-assembly cardboard boxes, and each time he came home he found more of them stacked up in the spare room in which he had recently been sleeping.”

The “now” of the novel follows the course of a solo walking holiday that the middle-aged Futh takes in Germany, his grandfather’s homeland, a looping route echoing a holiday he took in boyhood with his father. It ends at its beginning, in a town named Hellhaus (which sounds, and is, ominous, but can be translated as “light house”). Futh also carries a small silver lighthouse that had belonged to his grandfather and then to his mother. The object, formerly filled with perfume but now a talisman, “as if it were his Saint Christopher”, digs into his pockets.

From the present we flip back into Futh’s past, coming back again and again to the central, terrible event of his life: his mother’s overnight abandonment of the family, seemingly without a backward glance. There’s a grim picnic scene, replayed in different versions, when it becomes clear that she is going to leave. “He heard his father say, ‘What about him?’ and he saw his mother shrug.”

There is much discussion of the role of lighthouses, of smell and of perfume (Futh works as a creator of artificial scent). Some of the digressions can jar, as when Moore explores at some length the backstory of the lonely, perfume-obsessed hotelier Ester and her violent husband Bernard. (We learn that Ester, as a child, collects moths that fly into her bedroom, pinning them to corkboards. It “was the first of her various collections, although what she calls collecting, Bernard calls hoarding”.)

The momentum is restored when Futh nears the end of his loop, having got hopelessly lost along the way. Returning to Hellhaus, the sense of disquiet grows, and the importance of creepy Ester and Bernard becomes clear.

What makes The Lighthouse stand out is a plain narrative overlaid with extraordinary descriptions of smell, giving the story an additional layer of feeling, an almost fetid intensity. “Ester peels her orange on to the bar and a sweet, citrussy mist surrounds her, masking a warm meat smell.” Not since Patrick Suskind’s Perfume (1985) have I read a book that magicked the verbal into such an over-ripe, on-the-turn confection of queasy brilliance.

In the final chapter a man who had befriended Futh on the ferry out from England finds, a week later, that he cannot remember his name. “It was a name which makes him think of froth, and the powdery wings of a moth. It was a name which seemed to vanish even as he heard it.”

This is a book that might have vanished had it not been picked up by the Booker judges. It deserves to be read, and reread. No laughs, no levity, just a beautiful, sad, overripe tale that lingers in the mind.

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