The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

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The Lighthouse Shortlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: man, Germany, guest house, mother, lonely

The Lighthouse is a short book with wonderful imagery, but I can’t decide whether or not it works. It is one of those strange books that balances on the thin line between genius and madness. I’m still thinking about it many days after finishing, so I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The book follows Futh, a middle-aged man who recently separated from his wife, as he heads off on a walking holiday in Germany. He arrives at a German guest house cleverly (?) called “Hellhaus” (which translates as lighthouse). The book is then narrated alternately by Ester, the owner of the guest house, and Futh. The story itself is very simple, mainly involving themes of loneliness and belonging. Revealing anything else about the plot would ruin the magic that may/may not be there.

I can’t really fault the writing – it was powerful, with a wonderfully claustrophobic sense of foreboding.  Each scene was described in a detail that some people might find excessive, but I loved the way it indulged all the senses – especially the inclusion of smells, which are so often ignored in novels.

My main problem with the book was that the symbolism was heavy handed. There was no subtlety and I felt as though I was being beaten over the head by the continual reference to lighthouses.

He talked about flash patterns. ‘The light,’ he said, gazing fixedly at the hazy horizon, ‘flashes every three seconds and can be seen from thirty miles away. In the fog, the foghorn is used.’ And Futh, looking at the lighthouse, wondered how this could happen – how there could be this constant warning of danger, the taking of all these precautions, and yet still there was all this wreckage.

Repeated mentions of camphor and violets also started to grate after a while. 

The ending was bizarre. I was initially disappointed that it seemed to end mid-scene, but on reflection I’m beginning to think it was quite clever. My only problem was that I’m not entirely sure what the book was trying to achieve. The excessive symbolism of earlier sections made me think I was missing some deeper meaning. My confusion and conflicting emotions make this a perfect choice for a book club – I’d love to discuss the issues in the hope that other people might enlighten me.

This is a strange little book with a lot to recommend it. I can’t see it winning the Booker Prize, but its originality makes it one of the most memorable reads of the year.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

There’s a power to the amount of detail that Moore manages to pack into under 200 pages… Alex in Leeds

…it falls just inches shy of its aspiration to be something truly special because of a rather jarring ending which sadly feels a bit rushed, if not plain underdeveloped. Opinionless

I can’t begin to say what an incredible book this is; I loved it so much I bought extra copies to share with friends 2012: The Year in Books

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  1. Great article – we’ve been working our way through the Booker shortlist, and the Lighthouse really stands out for us, alongside Ned Beauman’s ‘The Teleportation Accident (which we’d have loved to have seen make the shortlist). Agree that it probably won’t cross the finish line in first place, but a remarkable achievement nonetheless.

    1. Jackie says:

      The Willoughby Book Club, The Teleportation Accident wasn’t to my taste (a bit too mad/bizarre) but these two books do have a lot in common. I can at least give them bonus marks for originality :-)

  2. Ali says:

    I must say I loved The Lighthouse – although I don’t disaggree with what you say – I think it did work. I loved the repeated motifs in the novel.

    1. Jackie says:

      Ali, Glad it worked for you! I guess I’m used to things being a little more realistic and so object to repeated references to the same thing. All a matter of personal taste, but I am pleased that I read it.

  3. brian says:

    Understanding the ending relies on having paid close attention to details earlier on. It’s suggested rather than explicit. Not complex but if you miss it it can seem a bit “oh – nothing happened”

    1. Jackie says:

      brian, I’d love to know what you are referring to! I can’t decide whether I missed something important or whether I saw it and just wasn’t that excited by it.

      1. brian says:

        I wasn’t explicit deliberately, so as not to either spoil it for people who haven’t read it, or impose my view on what happens on you, as I agree it’s technically ambiguous, but I think there’s one most obvious conclusion that we’re being shepherded towards.

        I know several intelligent people who haven’t noticed, and think the story just ended for some reason mid scene – I’ve also read other stories of hers and thought they were nice but not really understood them until talking to other people later and realising I’d missed important pieces of the puzzle that they had found obvious.

        From your comment just now, I think that you came to the same conclusion I did and just wasn’t excited by it. I for one loved it, and the way his fate was just suggested rather than explicitly laid out. For me it’s the same sort of reason that Jaws or Alien are scary (the lack of much full view of the monster/shark) – leaving you to fill in the ending yourself.

        1. Jackie says:

          Brian, I think the ending was fairly obvious from early on and so I wasn’t that excited by it. It is difficult to discuss it without giving spoilers, but for anyone curious I think the key word is camphor.

          I was wondering if you’d spotted something else in the final chapter. Was Carl there for any other reason apart from his vision?

          1. brian says:

            Yes. Camphor and segs. I think Carl also a possible actual friend opportunity wasted and one of many warnings unheeded. I may be missing things (or inserting things not there) though. Read three times and picked up new stuff each time – which may if course just mean i am an idiot :-)

          2. Jackie says:

            Brian, I didn’t notice the segs, but that makes sense too.

            I’m quite sad that Carl didn’t have a bigger role that I didn’t spot. I agree – a wasted opportunity.

  4. David says:

    I pretty much agree with your review of this one, Jackie, though I didn’t have any particular issues with the ending.
    In some ways it felt like a similar kind of book to ‘Swimming Home’, though I far preferred ‘The Lighthouse’. It’s equally as clever and well-written, but this one was made far more enjoyable by some fully developed and engaging characters and even the odd comic moment. The repeated imagery was good though for me some of it felt a bit laboured (the venus fly trap for instance – too obscure to be a believable coincidence and too obvious as a symbol to use twice) but I quite enjoyed the extended lighthouse analogy with Futh being terrible at reading signs and thus mistaking warnings for lures. Futh is certainly an odd and complex character too with his thing for substitutes! Sometimes he just seemed awkward and had my sympathy, other times he seemed deliberately dim and could be as much of a bore as his father.

    It’s far from being the best book I’ve read this year, and from the four shortlisted titles I’ve read so far, I much much prefer ‘Bring Up the Bodies’, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this one won if the judges end up looking for a compromise winner – it seems to have a foot in both camps: the more adventurous, experimental books as represented by Levy and Self, and the solid storytelling and plotting of Mantel and Tan.

    1. Jackie says:

      David, I did like the lighthouse analogy when it referred to being lost etc, but I thought it went a bit too far with all the charms, the guesthouse name etc. Less is more sometimes. I also agree about the venus fly traps – once would have been enough.

      I agree that Futh was a great character – it was nice to read about his flaws and although I never really cared about him I was at least interested to know what would happen to him next.

      I haven’t read Swimming Home yet (it is next on my list) but I’ll be interested to compare the two. I had heard Swimming Home was the better of the two so am interested to hear your differing opinion.

  5. JoV says:

    Sounds rather queer this book, make me curious as to how the reading experience would be. I’m reading the Garden of Evening Mists now. Thanks for ‘filtering’ the shortlists and I look forward to hear which book you would pick as the potential winner!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, August was such a busy month for me that I’m a bit behind in reading the Bookers this year. I’m back up to speed now and will hopefully have a summary post up before the winner is announced. It will be interesting to see if my choice matches the judges.

  6. Gavin says:

    I was so intrigued by this one that I ordered it from the UK. I’m skipping your review until I have a chance to read it!

    1. Jackie says:

      Gavin, I hope you think it is worth shipping across the world! Enjoy!

  7. I’d love to have read this as part of a book group, it’s such a good book to dissect and compare with other works, especially in the context of this year’s longlist or shortlist. I need to find a new book club!

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, I’d love to join a book group too. Think I’m going to have to start my own one. :-)

  8. Heavy-handed symbolism is my literary pet-hate – have a very low tolerance towards it. The same for heavy-handed political/religious agenda.

    You got me really curious about the plot, the ending and the possible genius of the writing!

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, I’m a bit sensitive to heavy handed symbolism too. It seems as though a lot of people don’t find it too much, but I’ll be interested to see what you make of it. Enjoy!

  9. Chinoiseries says:

    Well, your review make it clear that it’s not an easy book to read or to like. I am not sure whether I’m open-minded enough for The Lighthouse. Heavy-handed symbolism… maybe not my cup of tea. Thanks for another great review of a Booker prize contender, Jackie!

    1. Jackie says:

      Chinoiseries, This isn’t a difficult book to read, but not everyone loves it. On a positive note – it does at least make a great book for discussion!

  10. Oh wow, I hadn’t realized you read/reviewed this one. I just featured it Tuesday, but really haven’t begun it yet so I just skimmed and checked your rating. Glad u liked it.


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