When I’m deciding if I’m going to read a book I’m obsessively, nerdishly, careful; making sure it’s really the book for me. I read the newspaper reviews; I look at the excerpt that Amazon displays. Third person. That’s reassuring, and the excerpt seems well written.
The Booker Prize long list blurb really does sound interesting: “The story he keeps coming back to, the person and the event affecting all other, is his mother and her abandonment of him as a boy, which left him with a void to fill, a substitute to find.” My sort of book.
And just as important for me, there’s a quote from Margaret Drabble: “Melancholy and haunting. The sense of loneliness and discomfort and rejection is compelling, the low key prose carefully handled. It’s a serious novel with a distinctive and unsettling atmosphere.”
So, what was the problem? Well, the author couldn’t keep up the quality of the voice in the rest of the book that was in the Amazon extract (part of the opening chapter). That, I think was the main problem. But just as unsatisfactory is that the story is pure story. All plot, no character. Futh does this, he does that and other characters do this, do that. Emotional life is almost hidden. Inferring emotional life, not displaying it too crudely, that’s fine. But a reader does need something to work on. Margaret Drabble is right; it makes for a curiously unsettling atmosphere. John Mullan, in his book ‘What matters in Jane Austen’, writes that “the obligation of a serious author is to offer us insights into the paradoxes of human behaviour”. That is what Jane Austen does: Emma blunders about her own feelings, about Harriet Smith, about almost everyone, but Jane Austen shows us what these other characters are feeling. Emma is a novel about blunders. That would have been an alternative title for Emma. Futh blunders, but we have no insights into his character. We are told the origins of his problems: desertion by his mother. We are told, but we don’t really understand how it has formed his emotional life,
One of the Amazon reviewers compared The Lighthouse unfavourably to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, another travel tale of a frustrated middle-aged man, who has lied to himself at nearly every turn of his life. The reviewer wrote that in that novel we do get the sense of what that character wants, who he is, what he is travelling toward. Alison Moore never shows us Futh. You can pity him, but he doesn’t tell you his heart. And there’s the rather crass metaphor of Futh losing his way, which doesn’t really get worked out. He misses the gap in the hedge.
It’s clear, from the reviews that some readers enjoyed this very much. Every newspaper review said nice things about this book. I didn’t enjoy it, and I was left with a worrying feeling that there’s something wrong with me. I did finish it, and I was very grateful that it was so short. If I was writing a review for Amazon, how many stars would I give it? Whatever I did would be, I suspect, a judgment on myself, not on this book.