The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore, is one of those books you read not because it is going to be fun, but because you know it will be cleverly done and probably quite different from anything else you've read before. You know it will be clever because it was on the Mann Booker shortlist this year. And it won't be fun because early on in the book you can tell that the two main characters are doomed.
First of all, there's Futh. (Don't ask me how to pronounce his name, but as his grandfather came from Germany, I'm guessing it rhymes with 'tooth'.) Futh keeps stick insects as pets and works as an industrial chemist creating nature-identical smells.
Not surprisingly he is socially awkward and poor at relationships - probably something to do with the fact that his mother walked out when Futh was a boy. And perhaps this is why he is haunted by his mother's perfume. Smelling of violets, it came in a small lighthouse-shaped bottle which he carries around with him.
Scent descriptions linger on the page with everything he does - there's camphor, oranges, steak and onions and of course, violets. There is also some potent imagery connected with the lighthouse - is it a sign of welcome or a warning of the dangerous rocks below?
At the start of the book, Futh has recently separated from Angela and has decided to go on holiday by himself in the country where his grandfather came from. He is quite hopeless - he gets lost when he is driving and gets blisters and sunburn when he is walking. Mealtimes come and go while he stumbles on.
Propping up the bar at the guesthouse Futh checks in for the first and last nights of his walking tour is Ester. She runs the inn with her husband and is quite shamelessly a floozie, luring male guests into untenanted bedrooms, and flaunting her aging body in clothes too young for her. It is not a pretty picture. Husband Bernard is fit and muscled. Glowering at his wife over his crossword puzzles, he is a time-bomb waiting to go off.
Throw these characters together into a story, and the book seems to be a catalogue of disasters waiting to happen. I found myself galloping through the chapters hoping for some kind of redemption as the suspense mounted. I wanted Futh to find out he was good at something that people would recognize and applaud him for. I wanted Ester to see herself as her husband sees her and for them to repair their marriage.
I won't tell you what happens. This is a short book, and definitely clever - subtle and spare enough to leave much to the reader's imagination - and how that imagination bubbles and seethes. I found myself thinking that not only is the author playing with her characters in an 'as flies to wanton children' sort of way. She is also playing with the reader.