“a powerfully poetic and moving study of loss, grief, and abandonment . . .”
"He cannot even remember the man’s name. It was a name which makes him think of froth, and the powdery wings of a moth. It was a name which seemed to vanish even as he heard it. He searches his memory, but the name has gone."
No one remembers much about Futh, the protagonist of this Mann Booker Prize-shortlisted debut novel from Alison Moore, not fellow passenger on the Holland-bound ferry Carl, whose recollection—or lack of it—is quoted above, not his classmate and boyhood crush Angela when he meets her again as an adult. No one cares about him much either: His mother walked out when he was a child; his father put drinking and womanizing before the son left in his charge; Angela, whom he married, has asked for a separation.
To recover from the breakup of his marriage, Futh is taking a week's walking holiday, alone, in Germany, and this holiday provides the framework for the story. Every day this forgettable, unloved, rejected man walks joylessly for miles. His feet blister, his pale skin burns in the sun, he frequently gets lost. At every hotel he manages to always miss breakfast and is constantly hungry.
The days of his holiday are uneventful; apart from its surprising ending, Futh's story is all backstory, and backstory within backstory—the loss of his mother, his father's affair with Gloria next door, his relationship with Angela. The present, it seems, is merely a device from which to access the past. Sights, sounds, and smells springboard Futh into long reminiscences, in a way that sometimes feels contrived. Eating an egg reminds him of eating an egg with his father. The smell of coffee reminds him of the smell of the coffee his mother made on the day she left.
In a book full of descriptions that vividly evoke the senses—the feel of Futh's soft hands on the cold railings of the ferry; the sound of heels clacking on the floorboards of an empty hotel—it is the sense of smell that is most evocative, particularly the smells Futh associates with his lost mother, such as the violet-scented perfume she used to wear, whose lighthouse-shaped bottle he carries everywhere with him. Futh is a manufacturer of synthetic smells; he wants to capture forever the aromas that vanished when his mother left him.
Futh's story is interweaved with that of Ester, proprietor of the hotel where he stays on the first and last nights of his journey. While Ester's story is more firmly rooted in the present—she drinks too much, her looks are fading, she sleeps with customers seemingly to make her husband jealous—she too has lengthy sections of backstory with elements that mirror Futh's, including yearning for an absent mother, and an obsession with the same lighthouse-packaged perfume.
The lighthouse is one of several symbols that is heavily reiterated throughout the book, from its title to the opening quote from Muriel Spark ("she became a tall lighthouse sending out kindly beams which some took for welcome instead of warnings against the rocks"), to the perfume bottle, to the real lighthouse of Futh's childhood memories.
Another repeated symbol is the moth: there is the one attracted to the light in Futh's hotel room, the one caught by the Venus flytrap that belongs to Gloria, and a whole chapter devoted to Ester's fascination with the creatures. The Venus flytrap is another salient motif. Not only does Gloria—intent on seducing Futh as well as his father—have one, so does the predatory Ester. These three symbols are drawn together in the menacingly unsettling finale to Futh's story.
While some readers may feel they have been beaten around the head with the symbolic triumvirate of light, moth, and flytrap, and feel cheated by a sudden ending that leaves a certain amount to the imagination, there is no doubting that The Lighthouse is a powerfully poetic and moving study of loss, grief, and abandonment, and Futh, for all his inadequacies, a compelling antihero who commands our sympathy.