Alison Moore, Author, Book review, Fiction, Germany, literary fiction, Publisher, Salt Publishing, Setting

‘The Lighthouse’ by Alison Moore

The_Lighthouse

Fiction – Kindle edition; Salt Publishing; 192 pages; 2012.

Before I’d finished the first chapter of Alison Moore’s astonishingly good debut novel, The Lighthouse, I knew I was going to love it. Why? Because it had that lovely melancholic feel that characterises Per Petterson’s work. And perhaps because the opening chapter was set on a ferry — a common theme in Petterson’s novels — I felt immediately at home with the subject matter and the prose style.

A week-long holiday

The book has been billed as a “walking novel” but it is less about walking than about a middle-aged man — the impossibly named Futh — coming to terms with his past while on a week-long holiday in Germany. As he trods a circular route along the Rhine, he has plenty of time to think about his childhood, his early adulthood and his marriage.

The holiday is supposed to be restorative — he is freshly divorced and when he returns to England he will move into a new flat, where “all those self-assembly boxes will be there, with all his things inside waiting to be unpacked”. But things get off to a bad start on his first night at (the appropriately named) Helhaus hotel, in which he is badly treated by the landlord for what he thinks is no apparent reason.

However, Futh is not what we would call the most perceptive of characters, and much of what happens to him, not just on this holiday but throughout his life, seems to occur because he has misread people or situations. Indeed, most of this novel hinges on characters misunderstanding one another, either because they are too self-absorbed or because they lack the necessary social skills or emotional intelligence. On more that one occasion I was reminded of another of my favourite authors, Magnus Mills.

Second storyline

The Lighthouse contains a secondary narrative thread, told in alternate chapters, involving Ester, the landlady at the Helhaus hotel. Middle-aged but with a rampant sexual appetite, she resorts to seducing guests and having furtive sex with them, unaware that her usually inattentive husband knows exactly what she is doing.

Like Futh, Ester spends much of the novel thinking about her past and coming to terms with losing her looks — and her husband’s love. Similarly, she is also unable to appreciate how others might view her behaviour, which leads to some ingenious set-ups that are laugh out loud funny.  (As an example, that first night in the hotel is, quite frankly, hilarious.)

But on the whole this is a rather sad novel, more so when you realise that Futh is emotionally stunted, no doubt caused by his mother abandoning him as a small boy. Raised by his bullish father, a sexually promiscuous man, Futh lacks confidence, becomes the target of school bullies and finds it difficult to fit in, even as a grown man.

Symbolic language

Much has been said about the heavy-handed use of metaphors in this book — the lighthouse, in particular, is a recurring (phallic) symbol — but I quite enjoyed spotting these. And I also enjoyed some of Moore’s beautiful similes:

The man has his hands flat on the bar, his fingers splayed, his manicured nails like the display of eyes on a peacock’s tail.

And:

‘You are losing your sparkles,’ she said, reaching out and savagely refixing Ester’s diamante hair pins, the wire scraping along her scalp like rocks against the hull of a boat as it ran aground.

But most of all I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.

The Lighthouse has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Tomorrow night (Tuesday, October 16), we will find out if it has taken the £50,000 award.

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Deborah Levy, Fiction, France, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Swimming Home’ by Deborah Levy

Swimming_Home

Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 127 pages; 2012.

Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is the kind of short, sharp novel that may make you think twice about going on holiday with family friends.

A holiday in France

The story takes place across eight days in July 1994. The setting is the Alpes-Maritimes, France, where two English families share a holiday villa.  War correspondent Isabel Jacobs, her husband Joe — a celebrated poet — and their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, are joined by long-time friends, Mitchell and Laura, who run a shop in Euston, London.

When the five arrive at the villa they discover a body floating in the deep end of the swimming pool. They initially mistake it for a bear, but it turns out to be a young woman called Kitty French, who has exceedingly long hair.

Kitty seems to think she has a booking at the villa, too, but there’s been a mix-up with the rental dates. All the local hotels are booked up, so Isabel offers her the spare room. This vague but kind invitation will end up having far-reaching repercussions for everyone.

Deceptive appearances

There are two other characters — Jurgen, the German caretaker, and Madeleine Sheridan, the next-door neighbour — who are both crucial to the plot, because they have had past experiences with Kitty.

Of course Kitty is not all that she seems (indeed, no-one in this novella is what they seem to be when you first meet them). She tells everyone she is a botanist, but she also writes poetry and her arrival at the villa is part of a charade to meet Joe, whom she has long admired.

It is no plot spoiler to reveal that she ends up having sex with him — we find this out on page one as the pair drive through the night, two hours after their consummation in the Hotel Negresco.

A stranger’s arrival

Levy has taken an old formulaic plot — that of the stranger who arrives unannounced to disrupt a group dynamic — but given it an original twist. (On more than one occasion I was reminded of Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which does something similar and which was also shortlisted for the Booker — in 2005.)

It’s not an emotional book — although it does have a shock ending — but more an intellectual one, because there’s quite a lot to mull over and think about. (For instance, is Kitty’s poem that she wants Joe to read, really a poem — or a suicide note?)

And while the characters are not particularly fleshed out — indeed Laura seems to disappear not long after she’s been introduced and Mitchell doesn’t fare much better — they are deeply intriguing. All have closely guarded secrets, and part of the joy of reading Swimming Home is discovering these as Levy shifts her perceptive eye from character to character.

A book to read twice?

I rather suspect that this is a book that demands a second reading. Levy’s prose and the book’s structure is so deft and tight, that the narrative zips along at a furious pace. Occasionally, I wondered if I might have missed something and went back and reread pages — just to make sure.

In a way, this is a novel of contradictions: it’s dry and dispassionate throughout, but the ending is very moving and leaves one feeling particularly unnerved; the writing is taut and sparse, but it feels lyrical and Levy can capture a mood or scene in just a few words (“it was snowing seagulls on every rooftop in Nice”); the barely-there plot is rather dull but the story is intriguing and compelling.

While I feel kind of ambivalent about the book — I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either — I rather suspect the Man Booker judges may think differently. The winning novel — and it will probably be this one — is named on October 16.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, literary fiction, Paul Bowles, Penguin Modern Classics, Publisher

‘Up Above the World’ by Paul Bowles

Up-above-the-world

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Modern Classics; 223 pages; 2009.

Paul Bowles, an American-born writer and composer, is probably best known for his 1949 debut novel The Sheltering Sky. He penned Up Above the World, his fourth (and last) novel, some 17 years later. I picked it up by chance while browsing in the library last week and am so pleased I did.

A masterpiece of suspense writing

This novel is a masterpiece of suspense writing. It’s about a married couple who are taken advantage of while travelling through Central America. It’s the mid-1960s and Dr Taylor Slade and his much younger second wife, Day, regard themselves as travellers, not tourists. But for all their so-called worldliness and their willingness to visit places independently, their naiveté is somewhat alarming.

Within about 15 pages I’d decided these people, regardless of wealth and circumstance, probably shouldn’t leave their own homes — their trusting nature would only lead them into trouble.

It all begins with one simple act of kindness. Day loans $10 to Mrs Rainmantle, a Canadian passenger on the cruise ship, who has forgotten her line of credit. When Dr Slade finds out about the loan he is mildly horrified — he thinks the “big woman with pink cheeks” is “ridiculous” and dubs her “Mrs Crazy” behind her back. It’s not that he distrusts her, he just finds her tiresome and a little bit parasitic.

No escape

But later, when the Slades finish their voyage at Puerto Farol — before catching a train further inland — they find Mrs Rainmantle has checked in to the same hotel. It seems there is no escaping this rather large, jolly woman, who now wants to borrow some of Day’s clothes. That’s because the British consul won’t let her take her luggage from the ship until she pays an outstanding bar bill.

But once the Slades do, eventually, escape the clutches of Mrs Rainmantle, their holiday fails to improve: if anything it gets worse.

When Dr Slade falls ill, Day is grateful for the help she receives from a handsome young expatriate American man, Grove Soto, and his teenage Cuban mistress, whom she has befriended. But all is not as it seems.

There are aspects to Grove’s character that suggest he is not a man to be trusted, but Day doesn’t seem to have an ounce of paranoia in her body. It takes her an awfully long time to realise Grove’s nefarious ways, and even then she wonders if maybe she’s just imagining it.

A slow build-up of tension

What I really loved about this story is the way that Bowles builds up the suspense slowly but surely, so that by the time you realise what he’s doing it’s too late to back out and put the book down — you have to keep ploughing on regardless because you simply have to know what happens to these poor unsuspecting people. And yet, when he ratchets up the tension to an almost unbearable level, it never seems false or showy. There was never a moment when I thought it would be impossible to fool two travellers in this way — in other words, despite the horror of the story, it is entirely plausible, which only makes it more terrifying.

And while his prose style might be economical this doesn’t mean he leaves out important detail. In one particular scene Day hears a small child in another room, but Grove insists that it could be a parrot — immediately the reader isn’t quite sure what to believe. This sense of self-doubt is everywhere in the book and it creates a growing feeling of unease in the reader. The line between truth and paranoia is a very thin one indeed.

It’s only at the very end, when events are explained and you discover the true nature of Grove’s scheming ways, that you come to understand what the Slades have endured. It’s not pleasant, but then suspense novels aren’t supposed to be pleasant; they’re designed to be creepy and unnerving. And John Bowles’ Up Above the World is one of the creepiest and most unnerving novels I’ve ever encountered. More, please.