Something Creepy

Alison Moore, The Lighthouse

Salt, 192pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781907773174

reviewed by Abigail Williams

Near the beginning of Alison Moore's The Lighthouse a stranger interested in otherworldly phenomena asks the protagonist if he has ever accurately predicted something bad happening. The reply he receives undercuts his mysticism in its banality: 'Oh yes ... Last Christmas, I visited my dad and his girlfriend, and I just knew he was going to be in a bad mood, and he was.' The exchange sets the tone for this unusual and tautly written novel, one in which you constantly feel that something terrible might happen, though what you mostly see is mundane sadness, familiar and inevitable.

The Lighthouse is Moore's first novel, a surprise entry to the Man Booker shortlist. Alongside the obligatory big names (Hilary Mantel and Will Self) are three novels from independent publishers – Moore's among them – and one other debut novel. While reviews have been extremely positive so far, commentators have not only focused on Moore's status as a relative unknown but on the length of her book: at under 200 pages it's really closer to a novella, a far cry from the tomes usually shortlisted for the Booker. And it's quiet: the writing is spare and economical, each chapter's title usually only one word long (my favourite is chapter two, 'Breasts').

Nevertheless, there is something noteworthy at work in Moore's novel which makes its inclusion on the shortlist less surprising. The quietness of its prose is elegant and at times quite beautiful. And underneath its economical writing it is deeply troubling, basically unwilling to yield a narrative or message that approaches the simplicity of its prose. Without being sensational, Moore manages to create a sense of dread that is in some ways more disturbing than an out-and-out thriller: in The Lighthouse you don't know what you are dreading or why you are dreading it.

Futh is a recently separated middle aged man on a restorative walking holiday. It is his first trip to Germany since a similar one taken with his father when he was twelve, immediately after his mother left them. Both Futh's mother and his wife are called Angela – no points for noticing the Freudian revisiting: Futh's wife even has to remind him, 'I am not your mother.' Spliced between each chapter of Futh's story is the story of Ester, co-owner of a guesthouse Futh visits. This is not the only way the two are linked. Ester's guesthouse is called Hellhaus (meaning 'light house' – although you occasionally suspect the homophone may become significant), and Futh's favourite object is a small silver lighthouse his mother left behind. Weird patterns develop between Ester's fortnight and Futh's: smells pop up in each character's chapters (camphor, oranges, violets), as do objects (Venus fly traps, moths, a slowly masticated egg); each story also creates an unsettling and deeply sad sense of stasis, both characters trapped because of earlier events that they can't stop revisiting.

Some of the themes in The Lighthouse appear to be extensions of ideas in her earlier short stories – in 'The Pre-War House', for example, the protagonist's mother is called Angela and, like Futh's mother and his wife, she leaves her husband because he is boring. Like many of her short stories, the novel also has twin preoccupations, genre-wise. As with a good psychological thriller there is something creepy going on which you don't understand and might be imagining; there is also a more straightforward literary exploration of serious themes – childhood, loss, gender – which become illuminated but are by no means conclusively dealt with.

Boyd Tonkin's review for the Independent has already noted the tension between what he calls 'genre' and 'literary' fiction in The Lighthouse, and Moore is certainly aware of this tension. She continually signposts her concern with the way things are written. Ester, for example, is an avid reader and writer – she hoards Mills and Boons and keeps several abortive drafts of a romantic novel in a drawer by her bed – and also appears to be writing herself into the role of a romantic heroine: she keeps talismans of her husband's early courtship, despite the speedy deterioration of their marriage; sleeps with strange men; and alters her costume to fit the part she imagines for herself. Like The Lighthouse, she fails to live up to the genre she has chosen, sleeping with men she finds physically unattractive and getting parts of her costume – a new pink mini-dress and stilettos are worn while she cleans – almost woefully wrong. But, again like The Lighthouse, Ester is aware of her own ostensible failure, choosing to wear her costume in spite of its unsuitability, if only because it helps 'her flesh and bones remember something of herself at twenty-one'.

Unlike Ester, Futh is not a writer; his literary struggles appear in the form of boyhood communiqués with a next-door neighbour, both boys flashing their torches at one another in a procedure 'like Morse code except that it didn't mean anything'. This meaningless communication – 'like looking at a lighthouse on the horizon at night ... There was this flashing of light and then nothing, and you waited for the next flash' – returns us to the novel's epigraph, taken from a Muriel Spark short story: 'she became a tall lighthouse sending out kindly beams which some took for welcome instead of warnings against the rocks.' Looking for meaning in the lighthouse-like flashes of Futh and Ester's lives – looking for meaning, even, in the novel's odd, hybrid approach to genre – one suspects the author has set an impossible challenge.

At points the novel is too neat: Moore draws Futh and Ester's stories together by signposting events, smells, and objects common to each, but after this has happened a number of times you feel that something is being pointed out to you which does not require the pointing. The Freudian nature of Futh's obsessions with his wife and mother is made too clear: the fact that they share the same name and Futh's wife insisting that she is 'not your mother' is more than enough, and Moore's further reminders that the women Futh is attracted to are 'the age his mother was when she left', for example, appear clumsy. A slight overdose of coincidence and Freudian detail would not usually be a cause for significant complaint, but Moore's strength is that she handles difficult issues so lightly that you rarely feel you are being Spoken To, and it is a shame when these minor tendencies gets in the way.

Despite Moore's evident talent I find it unlikely that she will win the Booker: The Lighthouse is wonderfully assured but not showy enough to announce itself as a Work of Literary Excellence, which disadvantages it in relation to some of its flashier competitors. Moore's skill, though, is already being rewarded with the press that the shortlist nomination has brought her. The Lighthouse is a rich and thought-provoking debut, and if Moore’s second novel, currently being written, develops her debut's thematic and stylistic territory, she may soon prove to be a prize-winner after all.