July 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
Back in March, some of my friends and I went to Oxford. It was wonderful and I came away from the mega-Blackwell’s with three books: a limited edition of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’; John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs’; and Alison Moore’s ‘The Lighthouse’. Three months on, and I have finally read them all (except for Gray’s, which is on hold until I can regain the strength to cope with his pessimism). Moore’s debut novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012, coming up against such heavy-weights (considering the length of their entries, quite literally) as Hilary Mantel and Will Self. Moore’s was a much quicker read, coming in at only one hundred and eighty-three pages; however, its slimness does not reflect its depth. To put it metaphorically, it is like skimming a rock and watching the ripples, only then to follow the rock itself as it spins and sinks to the water’s floor. This novel follows the rock.
The novel’s chapters are all titled. As it progresses, the reader accumulates a list of objects, from violets to oranges, breasts to disinfectant. Not only are the chapters headed with these items; the rest of the text is filled with little inferences and mentions of them. Venus flytraps are, perhaps, one of the most memorable objects that permeate the differing, interweaving strands of the novel. There is Futh’s adolescence, the days after his mother’s abandonment of him and his father, one strand that appears through a series of flashbacks, remembered by the current Futh on a walking holiday along the Rhine. As he walks, he recalls previous visits to Germany, first with his father after his mother’s desertion, and then with his now-ex-wife, Angela, on their disastrous honeymoon. These two strands of Futh’s life, past and present, entwine with the thread of Ester and Bernard, the managers of the first and last hotel that Futh stays in during his holiday. Since their hotel is Futh’s first and final stop, he comes full circle, returning to where he began. Yet, as he nears his destination, there is an ominous sense that lingers. It is an atmosphere planted by Carl’s (a man whom Futh meets on the ferry to Germany) question: ‘Do you ever get a bad feeling … about something that’s going to happen?’ [p25]. The Venus flytrap is just one of the objects that maintains this sinister sense. Futh’s father begins an affair with the neighbour, Gloria, whose son, Kenny, Futh is acquainted with (Kenny ends up playing a key role in the breakdown of Futh and Angela’s marriage – see: the layers of accumulation and responsibility build up, until you realise that everyone is connected in some way). Gloria has a Venus flytrap that ‘catches every little thing that comes by’ [p74]; it catches a moth and Futh sees ‘legs and the edges of wings poking out’. Ester has a Venus flytrap, too; in fact, she has several and tickles their leaves to make them close over the half-dead insects that she feeds it.
Helpless, small creatures are engulfed by a mechanical-like being; it is beyond their control or strength. In a way, Futh is like these insects. He is drawn back to the Rhine, a bit like a moth to a flame, returning to where he and his father holidayed, to where he and his ex-wife (disastrously) honeymooned. He comes back to Ester and Bernard’s hotel, only to be trapped in Ester’s bathroom. Whilst hiding in the bathroom, Futh smells camphor and the reader knows his fate (it does feel fateful; the answer to Carl’s prescient question). Camphor is the scent with which Bernard douses himself. It lingers throughout the novel (another recurrence), heightened further by Futh’s own occupation as a developer of artificial smells. When he smells it, just before the bathroom light turns on, we already know what is to come.
I could write so much more about this book. It has a slow-burning quality, as its numerous strands are tied together suddenly, almost without the reader realising. At first, I did question the need of characters such as Kenny. Yet, now, I see that my dislike of him stemmed from the unsettling sense that there was something hidden beneath his gruff exterior. Unsettling is the only word that is apt enough for the novel as a whole. That, and uncanny. For, there is a familiarity to it all; yet, there is something else too: a dark void beneath these formalities and familiar normalities. Something lurking; the unspoken, the undone, that side of ourselves that no one knows nor ever will.