Two novels from the 2012 Booker Longlist, both published by small independent presses, with a lot more in common besides. Which is a strange thing to say given that Swimming Home concerns Kitty Finch, a mentally-disturbed girl stalking a family on holiday in France and The Lighthouse, Futh, a recently separated middle-aged chap who is taking a walking holiday in Germany.
The titles are drawn from the central motif. Swimming Home is a poem by written by Kitty Finch which she wishes to read to the man in the villa, JHJ (or Jozef as he is known to his wife), a poem which we never read, but the ramifications of which are shattering when JHJ finally hears it. Similarly The Lighthouse is a small silver ornament, which used to house a bottle of perfume. It was owned by Futh’s mother and it is the only thing of her which remained when she abandoned him and his father while he was a young child. It is also while Futh’s father is expounding about the workings of lighthouses that his mother announces her intention of leaving them.
Which brings me to the subject of repetition, particularly in Moore’s novel. Lighthouses, venus flytraps, bathrooms, escape routes, and the smell of camphor; all feature repeatedly. It’s only in the final scene that they coalesce into the inevitable (but how I wish it could have been avoided) ending. As Futh treks his way round Germany, his mind returns again and again to that picnic overlooking the lighthouse, each time adding more detail, more melancholy and sadness. It’s a key to the man he becomes, marrying a woman with the same name as his mother, a woman who throughout their uncomfortable marriage continually reminds him that she is not his mother.
Damaged children are central to Swimming Home also. Kitty Finch is serially depressed, manic maybe? Jozef himself, a wartime child refugee from Poland has traumas in his past that remain hidden. And Nina, the child of Jozef and Isabel’s fracturing marriage has not had the most stable of childhoods: her mother, a war correspondent, more often absent than not, leaving her to be brought up by an artistic and frequently adulterous father. You have to wonder how the events of this summer will resonate during her adulthood; events precipitated by her mother allowing Kitty Finch, who is found naked in the swimming pool, to stay.
Actually you have to wonder about a lot of things in Swimming Home because nothing is explicit. Levy trusts her readers to fill in the blanks, and there are a goodly number of those: the motivations of her characters, particularly Isabel, and, more importantly the contents of that poem. The ending, which we know will be bad – because when did inviting a stranger into the family circle ever end well – is surprising. I suspect though that a second reading will reveal secrets and clues missed first time through skillful misdirection, even if with hindsight, everything you need to know is in that suspense-driven first sentence.
When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.
Stylistically, the first sentence of The Lighthouse couldn’t be more different.
Futh stands on the ferry deck, holding onto the cold railings with his soft hands.
Nothing sensational but an atmospheric beginning nonetheless. The suspense in The Lighthouse builds slowly in a second narrative involving the landlady at the first B&B on Futh’s circular route – the Hellhaus (German: Lighthouse). Futh’s holiday, apart from the melancholy of the past, is a comic misadventure. Unaware of the events at the B&B in his absence, as his feet give him more and more jip, he longs for a return to the Hellhaus and an end to the holiday. He begins to leave things behind, symbolically divesting himself of his past. But what kind of future is he walking towards?
I’m aware that I’ve spoken more specifically about The Lighthouse than Swimming Home. That’s because it’s easier to get a grasp of the former on first reading. The picture builds slowly and the reader can engage with Futh’s tragic existence (even if in real life, I suspect I would have no truck with his pitifulness). I’d look forward to a second reading of The Lighthouse, just for the enhanced enjoyment that revisiting familiar key moments and symbols would bring. Turns out that Swimming Home is a page-turner, but a slippery one, that requires, even demands, a second reading, to get to its heart. I think, therefore, that both novels will fare well during the longlist rereadings of the Booker judges and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if both figure on the shortlist next week.