Reviewed by Ali Hope.
Alison Moore’s debut novel The Lighthouse was a wonderful success for independent publishers Salt, being short-listed for the Man Booker prize; it was a deserved big hit with readers too. Following on from a collection of short stories comes her much anticipated new novel He Wants. The bright, über-modern yellow cover is important, since yellow a recurring motif in the novel, as lighthouses were in her first. At less than 200 pages, He Wants is a slight book, one it is tempting to devour in just one or two sittings, yet it does pack quite a punch, having a lot to say about unacknowledged desires, disappointing lives, ageing, self-realisation and the ghosts of the past.
Written in the spare, evocative prose which so impressed me in The Lighthouse, He Wants is a quick, compelling read, beautifully insightful with some tenderly poignant depths. Moore is superb at teasing out the tiny, telling details of everyday, images which remain imprinted clearly upon my mind.
What Lewis really wants is one of Edie’s steak and kidney puddings, her chicken curry, her hot pot. He wants that excellent beef Wellington he had in a restaurant once. He does not remember what restaurant it was, somewhere on a summer holiday perhaps. It was a long time ago. He does not want soup but Ruth brings it anyway and Lewis eats it. He hates to waste it, and hates to see her taking away, with the slightest of comments, his tub of uneaten soup. More often than not he eats it cold, straight from the fridge, minutes before she arrives to take away the empty tub and leave him with another. He prefers pizza. He has discovered the joys of pizza delivery services. He orders Supremes and Delights and they are brought to his door by young men on motorbikes.
He once wondered about getting a motorbike.
Living in an unnamed Midlands village, Lewis Sullivan is a seventy year old, retired R.E teacher. His wife dead, he is reduced to eating the soup his daughter Ruth provides him with. Lewis doesn’t want soup. His life has become a series of quiet disappointments, and even the joy he might take in his own garden is spoiled by Ruth’s criticism of it. Still living around the corner from where he grew up in the appropriately named Small Street, near the secondary school where both he and his father taught, Lewis’s life has shrunk further. Lewis wishes he had had a more dramatic career; teaching chemistry perhaps, which always seemed more glamorous than R.E. He had even once wanted to live by the sea. In Lewis we see a gradually revealed crisis of identity, with flashbacks to his adolescence, and the images which haunt him start to haunt the reader. Bemused by his daughter’s choice of husband, with almost nothing written on his calendar, Lewis has little to fill his days. He makes occasional visits to his second favourite pub where he hopes to get a speciality sausage to eat and some shandy. Sundays are spent with his nonagenarian father Lawrence, living in a nursing home; his only outings to church once a week. Lawrence is a man running out of time to right the one terrible mistake he made. He writes letters to a uncle in Australia who must be long dead, sending them to different towns in the hope they’ll find the man whose forgiveness he so craves.
Lewis’s youthful influences were an odd mixture of D H Lawrence and Billy Graham. Lewis’s father, a teacher of English Literature, named for D H Lawrence, an author he came to love, found himself beguiled by the charisma of the American evangelist during the tours he made in England during the 1960s. Religion ruined his love of D H Lawrence, and he gave up teaching literature. Now Lewis gazes at the gaps in his own bookshelves, puzzling at where the missing volumes may have gone. Lewis’s wife Edie had worked in the mobile library, but had never read the works of literature Lewis tried to talk to her about, contenting herself with reading and re-reading the same romance novels.
Lewis remembers how the library tipped very slightly towards you as you entered, when you put your weight on the steps, and how it swayed underfoot while you were browsing. In the mobile library, the librarian still stamps the book’s paper insert, printing the date in black or purple ink, just like in real libraries in the sixties. In the town library now, you don’t take your books to the lady behind the desk, you put them into an opening in a big black machine that scans them. You can leave without speaking to a soul.
Lewis is a man out of step with the world, increasingly alienated from the modern world; he forgets that HMV is no longer there, and fancies that the electronic display in the doctor’s waiting room is taunting him. Saddened and shaken by a stupid accident for which he feels responsible, mirroring his father’s guilt over another long forgotten incident, Lewis has been reduced by the choices he made and the things he didn’t do.
So when Sydney, a mysterious figure from Lewis’s past, turns up at his door with his golden retriever and his bright yellow Saab, Lewis finds his dull routine severely shaken up. To say too much about Sydney could spoil the book for future readers, but his story is necessarily tied up with that of Lewis. Sydney is a joyfully irreverent character – his is a colourful past, both he and his yellow Saab a powerful symbol of Lewis’s frustrations.
He Wants deserves all the success The Lighthouse brought the author. It’s a quick, compelling read with real depth and heart, and I loved it.
Reviewed by Ali Hope who blogs about books at Heavenali, reviewing books from a bygone era as well as some more recently published titles.
Alison Moore, He Wants (Salt Publishing, Cromer, England, Aug 2014) 9781907773815, 192pp., paperback original.