Alison Moore's debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year. It is a powerful, stony-faced narrative that draws the reader along through its bleakly mysterious trail.
In the short-list also for this year's Man Booker prize was Deborah Levy's Swimming Home, whose aphoristic prose is shot through with glittering menace. Levy's lofty, dispassionate and merciless sophistication could not be further in style and intent from the tone of Moore's interweaving stories of equally desperate people.
Moore (born in Manchester in 1971) is a kind of David Storey for a younger generation, which is not to say that generation should not read Pasmore or indeed anything by Storey. He is much older, born in 1933, but is also from the North of England, a Yorkshire man. One hesitates to haul out that old cliche about it being 'Grim up North,' but comparisons with Storey are hard to resist.
As The Lighthouse begins, Futh has just separted from his wife and decides to return to Germany, his grandfather's ancestral country, for a walking holiday. The story opens with the ferry crossing from Harwich to the continent, and the man from Utrecht whom he meets on deck as night draws in. Futh offers the Dutchman a lift in his car as soon as they embark in Holland. On arrival in Utrecht, Futh spends some time at the apartment which his new friend shares with his mother. He then proceeds on towards Germany.
As the story progresses in its curiously elusive, subtly rueful way, the 183-page narrative gently draws the reader back into the story so far of Futh's misfortunate life.
We learn, coolly and non-judgmentally, of the departure of his mother when he was an only child and Futh's subsequent relationship with his undemonstrative father. His father takes up with a neighbour called Gloria. Futh's friendship with Gloria's son Kenny is subsequently destroyed by Kenny's resentment that Futh senior is sleeping with his mother. (He divides his time between both parents, his father lives nearby.) Thus, rejection and coldness pile upon each other.
Infidelity is a recurring theme throughout the novel, and the weary cloud of unspoken pain attendant upon relationships that have had the life-blood drained out of them. Even when Futh meets the woman who will be his wife for the first time as an adult, she is having an affair with a married man.
The story quickly introduces the parallel story of Ester who, with her husband Bernard runs the hotel in which Futh will stay the first night of his walking tour, in the German town of Hellhaus. Ester is a vividly drawn middle-aged woman, who sleeps with, or makes advances to, male clients of the hotel. Needy and pathologically disappointed, she is deeply unhappy with her self image and is somewhat overweight. Marriage to her domineering and violent spouse is a disaster zone.
Moore displays incredible accomplishment in describing the grubby lives of her characters, as they live their lives hopelessly in grubby Larkinesque rooms. There is a whole scissor cut-out tracery of deliberate holes in the tale, an almost Aspergers-like stoniness about telling you how Futh felt when traumatic things happened to him in the past.
A few well-chosen sentences powerfuly disperse the air of rejection and loneliness throughout the story like a malodorous perfume. Perfume - and the fragrance of violets in particular -have a central place in the account, ultimately uniting the two parallel stories.
Moreover, the novel's stony-faced lack of emotion means that everything seems heightened as a result - less is more as it were. Moore in her debut novel has been usefully compared to the brilliantly-gifted Norwegian novelist Dag Solstad, and the comparison is spot on.
Both writers are expert at portraying modern dysfunction, contemporary neurosis, and the beleagured protagonist trying to muddy on through the given data of his life. Ultimately, Alison Moore allows the reader a refreshing sense of space so that he or she can easily imagine the sufferings of the characters, all their grimy doings and love-makings, their cheerless abodes and equally cheerless hotel rooms.