The aspect of the work that most struck me is the sense of alienation in character after character. In the many relationships depicted, there is no warmth, no real connection between individuals. Each exists in his or her own bubble of personal concerns and others are made use of – or not – for those things they have to offer, relationships taking on a purely functional air or, more often than not, dysfunctional as some perceived value or another within the other person is found to fall short or not to exist at all.
The only relationship that seems to have any depth is that between the main character and his mother, but since she is gone, only existing in his memory, and since that relationship appears not to have been reciprocated in its warmth, (the mother leaving without, it seems, so much as a backward glance), it is that non-existence of the relationship that enables it to have an idealised quality.
One line, with a ferry pulling out from port to be lost in the sea, seems to symbolise this idea best. These characters are not so much ships that pass in the night as ships that never truly have any sort of encounter whatsoever. They may share the same sea, but they are way out of range of one another.
If this seems to be a strange way to begin a review, with something that belongs in the middle, then I can only say it is this that struck me most about it. The plot – Futh, taking a circular walking holiday on the continent for some purpose which, perhaps, I missed but appears to have something to do with memories of his mother – simply walks and thinks, mainly in terms of reminiscence. The first and last hotel along the way is run by Ester. She appears some way into the novel, but takes on a central role herself, though she and Futh are never more than passing acquaintances. It is Ester’s infidelities against a violent husband, the husband’s mistaken belief that Futh is one of her conquests, that provides the rising tension towards the end which Moore handles quite brilliantly. This tension comes at the end of a self-absorbed work, making it all the more powerful.
Smell plays an interesting role here. In the void empty of personal attachments, smell affords something of a bridge between the characters. Futh is connected to his mother through a perfume bottle in the shape of a lighthouse which once belonged to her. The perfume is lost, as she is lost, but the memory lingers. Ester is attached to her husband only through the smell of camphor. Taken in isolation, the scene in which she places some on his pillow in his absence is suggestive of a strong emotional bond, but it is isolated. Outside that scene, there is no real warmth. There is a sense, at times, that she wants to be attractive to him, but her efforts are desultory, and she is content to take any opportunity with other men should that attraction alight elsewhere.
If this sounds miserable, it is not. The characters are too self-absorbed for the absence of real relationships to seem painful. Indeed, it is as if they operate in a world where no such thing exists or could be dreamed of existing.
Though firmly grounded in reality, this is a strange work. It leaves me with the sense of something to think about, though I am uncertain as to what that something may be. There is something here suggestive of a message, but there’s nothing to hold on to from which to construct it. Indeed, perhaps that is what it is in the end. This is a book with which it is difficult to construct a relationship. It simply is, it is self-contained, it does what it does, it ends and we move on.