Once more I discover that a book being on the Booker Prize short-list is no guarantee of a good read. Perhaps its because I’ve read so many other books about “blokes on a walk” that it was always going to be difficult for ne to feel that Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse was going to offer anything new.
Last year one of my favourite reads was Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit, in which Graham Underhill wander around rural Worcestershire while his marriage is breaking up. Then this spring we had the excellent The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce in which Harold starts walking the length of the country and is transformed by the experience. When compared to these two predecessors, The Lighthouse just doesn’t cut it: I found it to be dull, I didn’t take to the main character. On the whole I felt that it contained too little narrative interest and that the ending was too hurried.
The book focuses on a middle-aged man with the unusual name of Futh. We meet him while he is on a ferry sailing across the North Sea on which he is travelling to a short, solitary walking holiday in the Rhine Valley. There is something not quite right about him – he is over-trusting, disconnected from normal sociability and introverted. Perhaps he has Asperger’s Syndrome or something along those lines. He spends his first night in a small hotel in the fictional town of Hellhaus but is struck by the odd behaviour of the landlady’s husband.
Over the next few days, Futh reflects on his childhood, his relationship with his father and his own failed marriage. His mother left home for good to emigrate to America when Futh was a child. He has never been able to come to terms with this, and his subsequent relationship with his father was coloured by his father’s many sexual encounters with women including his next-door neighbour Gloria.
In parallel with Futh’s story we read of the landlady of the hotel in Hellhaus where Futh spends his first night. Ester has a non-existent relationship with her husband and indulges in occasional dalliances with guests. She spends much of her time drinking gin at the bar and has an obsession with Mills and Boon novels (are these popular in Germany? apparently the answer is a definite yes!).
The problem I had with this book is around my lack of engagement with the characters. I found Futh to be one of the dullest characters in fiction. He had had a troubled childhood but despite his mother’s abandonment of him, I wondered whether it would really obsess him at the level it does when he has reached his mid-forties. Futh seems completely handicapped by these events and his obsessive thinking about them soon becomes tedious. He even carries a small token of his childhood – a perfume bottle which his mother had owned in the shape of a lighthouse – surely one of the flimsiest reasons for giving a title to a book.
In addition, the lack of descriptive writing is a bit of a problem. Futh was walking in a part of Germany with dramatic scenery, but it could just as well have been rural Leicestershire – apart from a few occasions when Futh gets lost, we read nothing of his walking experiences and nothing interesting seems to happen to him. He takes an entirely interior journey with no reference to the outside world apart from when it breaks in on him during his nightly stays in small hotels.
As I said earlier, I was left wondering whether it was at all likely that Futh could have been so permanently handicapped in adult life by his mother leaving him at the age of ten. Most of us achieve at least a semblance of normality despite the problems of our childhood.
Overall, I don’t understand how this book made it to the Booker short-list. But then I’ve never really been one to follow literary prizes. They create a bit of a splash in the media for the benefit of the publishing industry but I rarely find them a reliable guide to my reading.
I thank James Horsham for adding a couple of comments to this post which add some illumination to the author’s use of the lighthouse as the book’s title.