From the start of Alison Moore’s quietly creepy book, the expectations are that not all will end well.
Futh – an anonymous and private man who’s never given a first name – is on a North Sea ferry heading for Germany and a walking holiday to help recover from the break-up of his marriage.
The boat’s ramp raises like a drawbridge and Futh is reminded of the closing leaves of a Venus flytrap – a feature along with moths beating against lightbulbs – that recurs throughout the story.
Futh, who always works out an escape route, is nonetheless a trapped man; imprisoned by an inadequacy he can’t see.
He observes situations, but doesn’t understand their meaning or significance; he misreads people and events. For instance, he thinks his wife, Angela, smokes. But does she? Or is it that she’s carrying the lingering smell of smoke from another man’s cigarette?
Neither can he put two and two together on meeting the blowsy Ester in his holiday hotel, so he consequently doesn’t understand the hostile attitude of Bernard, the landlord (and Ester’s husband).
Here is a man who’s humiliated in different ways: by his father, by his father’s lover; by his so-called friends; and by his wife. But his own social awkwardness and lack of awareness means he’s almost blind to their cruel treatment, spelled out, dispassionately, by a third person narrator in a detailed, but non-judgmental voice.
So Futh, who keeps stick insects as pets, retreats into a space unclouded by his present misery: the memory of his mother. And we discover that the man he is today was formed when she deserted Futh when he was just 12.
His memories of her are recounted at intervals in a series of flashbacks, where the one piece of evidence of her having been in his life is a small silver lighthouse that once contained a vial of her favourite perfume. Futh carries it around like a good luck charm.
But instead of providing a metaphorical guiding light – or even a warning signal – as lighthouses are designed to do, the miniature version seals Futh’s fate.
The detail is painstaking and the slow burn of the story adds to the tension as Futh contemplates his past, but fails to see that the things he doesn’t do have devastating consequences.
It’s ironic what, while he’s surrounded by philanderers – his father, his wife, Gloria and Ester – it’s Futh who pays the price for a deed he’s not committed.
Alison Moore’s gripping, debut novel was a Booker nomination in 2012.