Sunday 16 June 2013

The Lighthouse – Alison Moore (2012)

It has been such a long time since I actually read this book that I considered not reviewing it at all, but for various reasons The Lighthouse has stayed with me, so I decided to write about it in brief anyway. The Lighthouse is Alison Moore’s debut novel and is notable for the fact that it made the shortlist for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, therefore gaining this slight novel some serious attention.

The Lighthouse is the story of a middle-aged man called Futh, who embarks on a walking holiday in Germany after the dissolution of his marriage. Unfortunately for Futh he embodies the term ‘absolute loser’ and is an almost completely unlikable character. During his circular ramble though the German countryside his bathetic past is thoroughly picked through and it makes for very bleak reading indeed. Futh’s life was initially blighted by being abandoned by his mother, only to be left with his insipid father, who then went on to have one soulless affair after another. Pretty much all of the supporting characters are both dysfunctional and unlikable. I wouldn’t recommend The Lighthouse as a holiday read, unless you particularly enjoy the psychology of human dysfunction.

The fact that The Lighthouse in an entirely depressing narrative does not particularly worry me, it is the fact that it made the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2012 and has been lauded for its “serious” qualities. The novel does deal with the important theme of how past traumas can shape the future. It is also a precisely pieced together narrative – something akin to a literary jigsaw puzzle with everything ultimately linked to each other. Unfortunately The Lighthouse also suffers from having its internal mechanisms being entirely visible. There are a multitude of all too obvious literary devices used throughout the narrative, all of which could have been either omitted or used with more subtlety.  Within its pages we have lighthouses, moths and that old chestnut the Venus Fly-Trap as all too apparent metaphors. Futh’s circular route through the German countryside, taking him back to the guesthouse he started out from (called Hellhaus – meaning lighthouse in German, sigh…) is a clichéd analogy for the dysfunctional eternal return of his life. The most unoriginal metaphor occurs when Futh meets his childhood ‘friend’ at the supermarket and ends up buying a bun that he had handled, complete with a fingerprint - a heavy-handed metaphor for the fact that Futh’s friend was sleeping with his wife.

The Lighthouse is perfect fodder for book clubs, so much so there is even a page on Alison Moore’s website containing questions for book-clubbers. My book club groups (26 members) almost universally pondered over the fact that the book is so highly regarded when they struggled to be engaged with the characters and found the narrative to be obvious and unrelentingly bleak without much reward. After all, this book was short-listed for the Man booker Prize along with the winner – Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies and such writers as the super erudite literary freak Will Self.

This brings us to the question of the worth of literature prizes such as the Man Booker. Mantel’s two winning novels are certainly worthy, but what about the truly excruciating The Finkler Question that won a few years ago – the worst book I’ve ever read? That book still haunts me and I feel like my psyche has been damaged in an insidious way. I’ve heard whispers that judges shirk reading the books, passing the task onto underlings for assessment. I’ve also been told that a former judge revealed in an interview that often the judges are so deadlocked on deciding he final winner that the only compromise is to give the award to a lesser book.

Perhaps the most interesting issue to think about is whether literature awards are actually good for authors and the industry as a whole. With everyone so fixated on awards perhaps many worthy authors and books are overlooked, with undeserving novels getting unwarranted attention whilst the more deserving fall by the wayside. There’s a rich tapestry of literature out there, far more than what appear on award long-lists. So are awards worth our attention? Or are do they create an illusion of quality and are more about the powerful sway of the market? I’m undecided – the jury’s out so to speak, but these days I’m feeling less inclined to read award-winning novels and I’m pretty sure my book club members are too.

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