I have mixed feelings about this book. I didn’t dislike it, because I managed to read it quite quickly without getting bored with it, but it is by no means a romping read. I think instead of having that gushing feeling you sometimes get from a story that emotionally pulls you in, I have a quiet admiration for this book.
Futh is a middle-aged man recently estranged from his wife and embarking on a restorative walking tour of the Rhineland. But even as he embarks on his trip, memories of a previous tour with his father come flooding back. These memories of his childhood and failed marriage haunt him throughout his week-long walk. Futh’s mother left the family quite suddenly when he was a boy and he has looked for her, metaphorically and in reality ever since. Futh and his father went to Germany after she left in an attempt to finally leave her behind, Futh’s father tried to forget his wife by bringing a string of women back to their hotel room for liaisons in the bathroom, all of which Futh remembers.
Running along side Futh’s story is the story of Esther and her turbulent relationship with her husband Bernard. They run the Hellhaus bed & breakfast where Futh starts his tour. Esther is a woman past her prime, desperately trying to get her husband’s attention, almost goading him to take notice by flirting with any man willing to play along. Esther’s story is the weaker of the two and seemed to me to serve more as a catalyst to trigger parts of Futh’s story.
Essentially this is as much as you need to know, because there is no more plot as such. Yes, Futh embarks on his walk, but this is incidental really, the main thrust of the story hangs on Futh’s memories. The thing with memories is that you are never quite sure how reliable they are, but clearly the things Futh remembers have formed the man he is. He suffers from paranoia, with an element of obsessive compulsiveness relating to his surroundings, he is poorly prepared for his trip, burdened with unnecessary equipment, he doesn’t take care of himself and makes no attempt to use the walk as an opportunity to blow away his bad memories and breathe new life into his future. Instead he wallows in his recollections, wishing he could change things that have already happened. This makes the whole experience much more claustrophobic and gives it a threatening air. The walk is a grind, a chore and ultimately he is walking in a circle back to where he came from, unable to change anything or move forward.
His memories show him as a man unable to understand or comprehend what is going on around him, or maybe he does understand and chooses to ignore it and pretend it’s not going on. Certainly, I felt his memories were slightly incomplete. As the reader you could see things going on in the margins and on the periphery of the memory and it felt that Futh was denying the truth of what had happened at certain points of his life. Futh’s memories are often triggered by smell, as an industrial chemist responsible for creating artificial smells, you can understand how perfumes would be important to him, but again these fragrances only serve as sad reminders of failures.
This is a book with a lot of symbolism and metaphor, with scenes, items, names and smells being repeated and all forming that circular motion, reminding us that what goes around comes around, we can’t escape our past or who we are. Futh is definitely a product of his family history, but is denied his own identity – he’s never even given a first name in this book, so lacks any distinguishing features, fades into the background and is blown away on the wind. The warning signs, like the lighthouse flashing on the clifftop during a family picnic, were there all along
And Futh, looking at the lighthouse, wondered how this could happen – how there could be this constant warning of danger, the taking of all these precautions, and yet still there was all this wreckage.
The reader knows that Futh has yet again failed to notice the warning signs and is walking back towards Hellhaus and into more trouble.
This book is Alison Moore’s first and made it onto the short list for the Man Booker Prize in 2012, gaining her and her publisher, Salt, much needed notice and publicity. It is an accomplished piece of writing and the more I think about it, the more I admire it, but this is not a book for everyone. It is so full of symbolism and metaphor it almost gets in the way of the central message of abandonment, grief, loss and the reliability of memory. However, it is still lovely to have received it as a Christmas gift!