Fruitful Confusion: Alison Moore's The Lighthouse

21:11, Nov 22 2012

Here is an embarrassing confession: I first picked up Alison Moore's Booker-prize-shortlisted novel The Lighthouse because, well, I like Alan Moore a lot.

Somehow in browsing I mixed up the two Moores, and then fellow shortlister Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis entered the fray alongside Moore's Neonomicon, and then there was word-association galore. I was confused.

Once I re-read the author's name and got over my disappointment, I decided I would press on with The Lighthouse. I had read Claire Allfree's interview with the female Moore in the New Zealand Listener and was quite excited at finding a new literary horror.

Unfortunately, it's not actually a horror story at all. I kept waiting for that eggshell-crack moment when things break out of the normal and escalate into horrific chaos, but they never quite did. The Lighthouse is an excellent piece of suspense, however, and Moore maintained a uniquely queasy sense of discomfort throughout her short novella.

The Lighthouse is one of those stories that is difficult to summarise in a way that sounds interesting because so much of it takes place inside narrators' heads. The core plot has middle-aged divorcee Futh taking the ferry to Germany for a walking holiday. During the holiday, he mulls over upsetting snippets from his marriage and childhood and blunders into an emotionally charged situation with guest-house proprietor Ester and her husband Bernard.

At its best, the story had the impetus of nightmares. Wrapped up in Futh's disconnected thinking, each new plot point seems to have a bewilderingly personal relevance to his past. The increasing loss of control looks so completely specific to Futh that his very real danger took me by surprise- it almost seemed like an extension of his mental state.

Moore's writing style is effortlessly slick and perfectly understated. There's something crisply British about her particular choice of words- Moore's main character speaks a little like my Nan, who pronounces "white" with a whistling sound at the beginning and believes in saucers with tea.

Unfortunately, this was almost too cold for my taste. My attention skittered across the page a lot and I had to stop myself skipping some of the slower sections. However, after a third of the novel I began to notice The Lighthouse's internal logic kick into action, and it was a joy to watch.

Real lighthouses echoed perfume-bottle lighthouses, which were in turn referenced by multiple overlapping mentions of a woman who worked for a perfumier, Futh's job as a manufacturer of chemical scents and a woman named for a group of aroma compounds. Oranges were repeated in multiple grim contexts, while venus flytraps and cigarettes always showed up in risky sexual situations.

The subtle way Moore handled this crazy rag-bag of motifs was really satisfying- I found myself mentally cheering her on every time she snuck the flytraps back in again.

The Lighthouse is one of a great lineup from this year's Man Booker prize shortlist. The prize itself was won (for the second time in three years!) by Hilary Mantel with her novel Bring up the Bodies, but the other shortlisters were:

Swimming Home
by Deborah Levy

The Garden of Evening Mists
by Tan Twan Eng

Umbrella by Will Self

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil