At 180 pages The Lighthouse by Allison Moore is the exact antidote to 1Q84 I was looking for. It’s a short read that delivers in style, narrative, story, structure and content.The writing style is deceptively spare and simple but it is a moody, psychological page turner that explores the impact of loss and deception on a young boy. Its spare prose it also delivers compellingly beautiful cinematic moments in spite of the overall sinister undertones of the novel.
The novel starts with Futh, the main character, who goes on a walking tour of the Rhine to help him recover from his broken marriage to Angela. While on his tour he reflects on seminal moments in his life; his relationship with his emotionally distant and sometimes abusive father, his relationship and memory of his mother who suddenly disappeared from his life when he was 11; his relationship with Gloria – his best friend’s mother and his father’s lover and finally his relationship with his wife Angela – a relationship that was clearly broken from the start.
The backdrop to this narrative are the lives of the the German innkeeper at Hellhaus – Bernard and his wife Ester. Ester, once engaged to Bernard’s brother, chooses Bernard. After 20 years of marriage his emotional neglect and physical abuse take their toll on the once beautiful Ester. Now an alcoholic who’s looks are declining, she sleeps with hotel guests to regain the attention of her husband. Ester, whose life’s pleasures revolve around small things is fascinated by a wooden perfume bottle in the shape of a lighthouse her husband gives her as a wedding present. She had hoped he would have bought her the silver one.
Futh first encounters the couple when he arrives at their inn. The undercurrent of tension and violence is already palpable in his first encounter with Bernard who does not like him. But the walking tour takes Futh away from the inn and he returns only on his last day. Like Ester, he too has been deceived in love – by his mother – and like Ester – his memory of her, his anchor in life is the Lighthouse shaped silver perfume bottle he took from her – which in turn had been taken away from his great uncle but was instead given to his mother. It is clear that the circle of life, the circle of deceit continues and follows Futh wherever he goes. When Futh returns to Hellhaus to find his perfume missing it leads him down a path we recognize isn’t good but it doesn’t matter that we as readers know.
The book is in many ways heartbreaking. Futh as a young boy loves his mother and her unexplained disappearance leaves him longing for her his entire life. Smells, moments, the last time he saw her in her travelling dress, the smell of coffee, the suitcase, the undisguised boredom she has for his father – her missing-ness leaves him empty. This childhood hurt never goes away and is in fact compounded by the relationships he has with others.
There is a great deal of ambiguity in the book. You know something terrible has happened but you don’t really know how terrible – what really has happened – but you do know that everyone on some level is indifferent or has double crossed someone else and that in many senses this is simply the circle of life. Family betrays family. The ultimate hurt is that those closest offer the greatest deceit.
I could go on but I don’t want to give too much away. It’s a haunting read. Very well done. No wonder this was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.