AJ Dehany's Reviews > The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
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The twin central narratives of Alison Moore's Booker Prize nominated novel "The Lighthouse" take place over a week, following Futh and Ester, whose stories cross, diverge and finally converge. Futh is always referred to without title, and we never learn his forename. He is eminently forgettable: after a week Ester "cannot picture him at all" and the other stranger Futh meets at the start of the book, Carl, after a week "finds that he cannot really visualise him" or remember his name. I myself have in the previous sentence twice mistyped his name Fruth.

The novel is steeped in memorial processes and is in a sense about memory, about failing to come to terms with experience, failing to close the loop. Much of the book finds us peering back into the past; lives are reconstructed from memory, past stories weave through the present. The central symbols of the novel recur: the lighthouse, smoke, the scents of violets and camphor.

In this book, smell is (you’ll forgive the pun) essential; late on Fruth smells camphor at a critical moment and the experience is "like being wrenched soul first through time" - the familiar physicality of the Proustian memoire involontaire, at once real and diffuse. Perfume is a presence and an absence at the same time; it can not be seen but is apprehended, and its presence allows us to experience the trace of an absence; it is in effect the presence of absence. This is why it is so resonant in this poetical and elegaic novel; Ester smells her estranged husband beside her in the bed, and strengthens it with camphor; elsewhere, camphor is an essence of Futh’s mother:

"..the dark interior of her wardrobe, the smell of leather and secret cigratte smoke and camphor from the mothballs she used in the summer, is what he would have liked to bottle and label ‘Essence of Mother’, but instead he has violets and oranges."

In this one passage we also find the trace of forbidden cigarette smoke; as a child Futh gets caught with a cigarette he didn’t even smoke, with the smell held in evidence against him. Three of the characters smoke furtively (Futh’s mother, Ester, and Futh’s estranged wife Angela) - so smoke, itself a liminal substance, attaches to them as an incarnation of the past in the present. The smoke of Angela reminds Futh of his mother, and he speculates that to Angela the smoke reminds her of her previous lover.

Another scent, violets, is also contained within another symbol, the Lighthouse. There are three lighthouses, and two of them are perfume bottles. There is Futh’s silver lighthouse whose vial of violets has been broken and lost; and Ester’s smaller cheaper wooden lighthouse whose vial is intact. The lighthouse’s purpose is therefore for containing scent, but one of them does not contain scent, and if scent is itself an absence, then the absence of a vial of scent from its container then makes for a double absence.

Another symbol - oranges - is less fathomable; twinned with violets in the perfume, another of Futh’s associations of his mother, and without Ester’s knowing this, it is nonetheless very pointed that Ester is eating an orange at the moment at which she is most truculent to the stranger Futh, who is a guest at her hotel.

For a week Futh stays each day in a different hotel, on a walking tour between them through Germany, returning to Ester’s husband’s hotel, the Hellhaus - which means (of course) ‘Light House’ auf Deutsch but has other obvious resonances in English, which are not inappropriate: the hotel is dysfunctional. Ester sleeps with the guests in other guest’s rooms, under the eye of her frustratedly jealous husband, who had originally married her to get an obscure revenge on his estranged brother whom he “never really liked”. She has a collection of venus flytraps she feeds with dead flies, which occasionally themselves die. Male and female emotional dysfunction are discreetly catalogued.

The central symbol of the lighthouse is looked at through different prisms. It is the aforementioned perfume container, and it is also a real lighthouse, from the past; which Futh’s father holds forth on in a detailed factual and banal way; to him it is technology, but to Futh it is a symbol. It has become conflated in his imagination with loss, and so it is ironic that his father would have a quite different apprehension.

Another scent, coffee, we find experienced by Futh twice in a few pages; the first time it is noted that the coffee beans have clearly lost their aroma in processing and had it put back artificially (another compound absence! (and another pun, sorry)) and with his next cup, what is Futh reminded of but his mother! There is nothing in the present that is not tainted with the past.

Traces betraying absence; this novel is a tissue of recollections, in the air, evanescent, but if it has a central point to make, it might ultimately be that there is a reality, a consequence, to the ephemeral or barely tangible; memories cling to us like perfume or cigarette smoke, and they make us act and do things we will nostalgize or regret; and, as we find as a reader accelerating through the final pages toward a very real climacteric, these symbols can suddenly find themselves attaining a physical and life-changing import and consequence. But will we be able to move past them into the future?
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Reading Progress

August 15, 2012 – Started Reading
August 15, 2012 – Shelved
August 15, 2012 – Finished Reading

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Mary Montgomery hornback Love the review AJ. Great dissection and analysis of this book.

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