The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (Salt - March, 2012)
The light of a lighthouse, Alison Moore tells us, flashes every three seconds, and can be seen for thirty miles.
Moore has not just written her narrative around the notion of a lighthouse. She has also constructed this debut novel to operate like a lighthouse, flashing light upon a particular element of a story, letting us catch a glimpse of it, then returning to it a second time, then a third, so that gradually we become sure of what we have seen. Of course, if we knew what to expect, we would have observed everything in the first flash. For, like the circular walking holiday that her ill-fated protagonist, Futh, recently separated from his wife, embarks upon, the destination is clear from the start and must be returned to. The whole novel is a question is ‘premonition and precognition’, like the dark arts of the tarot-reader that it features. But it is not until the end, when the light is shining its most brightly, that we see with full clarity that we had in fact known from the outset where we would end up.
If this lighthouse analogy makes Moore’s debut sound brash, it is not. It is a subtle, meticulously-plotted novel that deserves its place on the Man Booker longlist, well-spotted by indie-publisher Salt Books. The sense on a first reading is not of an insensitive light being shone into the dark, but more a gradual smell building from a first whiff of a scent to a fully-recognisable aroma. This, again, is no accident—Futh works in the manufacture of synthetic smells. It is his job to capture the smells of violets, oranges and camphor that so haunt the memories of his youth. Violets are a safe place, the smell of his mother who abandoned him and his father, sought but elusive; cigarette smoke carries the whiff of boredom and betrayal; camphor is both dangerous and life-defining—his smell of it at a critical moment is so strong that he is almost brought back to the womb, ‘wrenched soul first through time’ to the dark interior of his mother’s wardrobe from which he overheard that she would be leaving home.
These smells and the lighthouse emblem are—in sheer genius—combined in the central emblem of the novel, a small silver perfume bottle in the shape of a lighthouse. This perfume bottle, the broken phial of which used to contain the violet perfume worn by Futh’s mother, is Futh’s most treasured possession. Like the ships drawn towards the lighthouse despite the danger it represents, like moths drawn to the lights that represent the moon, Futh is increasingly imperilled by the draw that this small object has for him.
It is not surprising to learn that Moore has heritage as a writer of short stories. She is well-practised in the art of imbuing each word with significance, the use of the recurring motif, and the choice of words is so deliberate that at times it feels like reading a novel in translation, with none of the clunkiness. If your tutor is lecturing you on the need for care over each word, or the need for each word or act to signify everything, the notion of the surprising but expected ending, you should use this book as your bible.
But the novel is not all beautiful prose and fine imagery. There is real cruelty here, with well-observed portraits of the domestic savagery of families and unhappy marriages. The deadly Venus fly-trap gets as much exposure as the gentle moth that it crushes. A hotel housekeeper, trying but failing to quench her loneliness by sleeping with hotel guests to awake desire in her proprietor husband, sits in a new dress at the bar with bare legs, conscious of her capillary veins but thinking that her husband has been admiring her from across the room. Instead, he walks past her, pausing only to suggest that she put on some hosiery. In a similar act of marital brutality, Futh’s mother cuts across his father’s lecture about lighthouses with the simple words ‘Do you know how much you bore me?’ These words are meant to wound.
This is not of course just cruelty, but frustration with the state of things. Futh’s wife, before leaving him, was frustrated too. At first, when she rebukes Futh with the words ‘I’m not your mother’, it could be the clichéd throw-away in the Freudian mother-son line. By the last time she says it, we understand: Futh is a man fixated with his mother and who compares his wife to her, even in the bedroom. Gloria, a woman who has both had a sexual relationship with Futh’s father and is the mother of Futh’s school friend (and sexual competitor), is both a mother-figure and a siren for Futh. What wife would not be frustrated by that, by a mother-obsessive, overly passive, oddball, with strangely feminine tendencies, who only learns to drive at middle-age, who avoids confrontation, and who on their wedding night retires to their martial boudoir to bathe and waits for his wife to come to him. But all the same, Futh’s father need not so cruelly have remarked upon her leaving Futh that ‘she got bored.’ Despite his Freudian issues, Futh is the only real innocent of the novel, yet paradoxically he is suspected of guilt by a husband with the heightened observational powers that jealousy brings, and it is this along with the draw of the perfumed lighthouse and all it represents, which finally dashes him against the rocks.
At times, Moore credits her readers with more heightened observational powers than they might actually possess—it may be a short novel, but even the most attuned reader may fail to remember the description of a sound of footsteps early on that becomes so significant at the end. It was not until a re-reading that I grasped the import of the earlier subtly dropped-in detail. Not that it is a problem re-reading this novel; it is as near to a perfect novel I have come across for a long time and I could happily read it in a circular fashion, starting again each time I have finished.