Alison Moore, The Lighthouse (2012)
Time for my first foray into this year’s Man Booker longlist. Alison Moore’s name came to my attention when I read her short story ‘When the Door Closed, It Was Dark’ a couple of years ago. Her debut novel, The Lighthouse, shares that earlier tale’s unsettling atmosphere and intense focus on detail.
A man named Futh travels from England to Germany on a walking holiday to take his mind off the end of his relationship with Angela. Instead, he dwells on the past: his uneasy relationship with his womanising father; his friend Kenny’s mother, who didn’t act quite as you’d expect of a friend’s mother; those rocky times with Angela. Lighthouses are a recurring metaphor: the lighthouse-shaped perfume case belonging to his mother that Futh now carries, though it’s empty; the lighthouse Futh saw on a childhood holiday to Cornwall, and wondered ‘how there could be this constant warning of danger…and yet still there was all this wreckage’ (p. 56).
There was plenty of ‘warning’ when Futh was growing up, but it doesn’t seem to have made him much wiser about relationships. Similarly, Moore’s secondary protagonist, bed-and-breakfast owner Ester, is apparently stuck in a destructive cycle of having liaisons with her guests, and hiding the fact from her husband Bernard, who’s lost all interest in her. The narrative loops back and forth to different periods in the characters’ lives, gradually revealing more – all in precise, evocative prose. The Lighthouse is a fine first novel that deserves the extra attention it’s going to get from its Booker longlisting.
Christopher Coake, You Came Back (2012)
I’d call Christopher Coake’s debut novel a ghost story, but really it’s more about believing in ghosts – which, in You Came Back, is partly a symbol of hanging on to the past. Coake’s protagonist is Mark Fife, who’s rebuilding his life several years after his young son Brendan died, and he separated from Brendan’s mother Chloe. Now, Mark is in a new relationship, with Allison; he’s contemplating proposing to her when the owner of his old house turns up, claiming that the house is haunted by Brendan’s ghost. What does it mean for Mark – and his relationship with Chloe – if that turns out to be true?
You Came Back works well enough as a portrait of parents’ dealing with life after bereavement. But what I particularly like about Coake’s novel is the elegant way that it can be read both literally and metaphorically. Take it literally, and you have an examination of how Chloe, Mark, and their relationships with others are affected by the possibility that Brendan somehow survives. Read the novel metaphorically, and it’s a story of grieving parents who won’t let go, even if that means dragging everyone else they love down with them. On top of this, You Came Back does not shirk its responsibilities as a work of suspense; Coake leaves open to the end the question of whether there really is a ghost. After all, the whole novel is concerned with what people might do when faced with something they’re almost certain is not true – but can’t help thinking that it could be.