Postal Reading group
November 2018
Notes on the book The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

Alison Moore’s short novel, The Lighthouse, follows the recently divorced Futh as he sets out on a walking holiday in Germany. Hoping to discover himself, Futh ends up becomming hopelessly lost, both literally and metaphorically. This was Alison Moore’s first novel, and made the shortlist for the Booker prize in 2012.

Throughout the book, there is an overwhelming sense of loneliness, and the author has explored this very well. At times this makes for a depressing read, although by way of compensation it is a short book. Loneliness has been a topical issue for the last few years, but it wasn’t receiving nearly as much exposure when this book was written, so the author should be congratulated for her prescience. The sense of loneliness is compounded by the hapless characters. Even when they are in a relationship they seem to be just as disconnected, to the extent that the story seems to be warning us against entering into any relationships. Although a rather depressing view, this is a common enough theme: we seek to assuage an inherent sense of loneliness through relationships, and then become disillusioned. I believe Buddhists would identify this as craving, supposedly the root of so much of our suffering.

The main character, Futh, seems to be something of a non-entity, reflected in his name. Are both his forename and surname really the same, or does he never use his forename? Incidentally, and appropriately for someone on a walking holiday, Futh could sound a bit like foot, or more especially the German fuß, spoken in an unfamiliar accent. He’s also something of an enigma. He’s an industrial chemist, so presumably not stupid, yet there seems to be so much which he doesn’t know or wilfully ignores. Initially I thought he may have been on the autistic spectrum, and may have had some sympathy for him, especially given his difficult childhood. However, if this were the case I would have expected his navigation skills to have been better, and hoped that he would have been able to follow the advice of breaking in new walking boots beforehand.

As well as the sense of loneliness, and the hapless characters, there is an ominous feeling throughout the book, as if you clearly expect something to happen. Even in the beginning, when Futh meets Carl on the ferry, although there is no reason to suppose that this is any more than a routine holiday, you still expect that something bad will happen. Perhaps it is Carl’s comment to that effect, their unease around flying, or Futh’s obsession in checking each new room for an exit route. Similarly, the frequent symbolism (lighthouses and Venus Flytraps seem firm favourites) contributes to the feeling. Indeed, there are so many occasions when you almost expect this event, the final ending, in which quite a bit is left to the imagination, still comes as a surprise. With a name like the Hotel Hellhaus, how could you possibly have an uneventful stay? I know that it doesn’t have the same meaning in German (literally bright house), but I wonder if the author enjoyed the play on words?

In contrast to this however, the plot is simple in the extreme, and the story moves on only very slowly; at walking pace even. There are times when it seems more retrospective as both Futh and Ester (the hotelier) spend much time looking back. This, coupled with the cast of extremely dislikable characters means that I would expect some quite polarised opinions around this book; it’s cleverly done, but I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it.

By some coincidence I have also recently read The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry, which reached the longlist for the Booker prize in the same year. Both are about walks and both feature lonely, hapless people dwelling on childhood regrets. Although this is an interesting coincidence, I don’t want to overstate the similarities. The present book is arguably the more serious and realistic, as well as more foreboding too.

In conclusion I think this is well written and a good exploration of the theme of loneliness, although the dislikable characters and the feeling of foreboding make it a difficult book to really enjoy. This, and the weak plot will probably polarise people’s opinions. Indeed, I almost think that this is too simple to make a good novel, but too long to be a short story. The comparison with The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry is interesting, although this is the more serious book. Both are surprising choices to be nominated for the Booker prize, however.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler