I WAS once staying in a B&B and was joined at breakfast by another guest. As we gulped down our tinned tomatoes, I discovered he was also speaking at the literary festival nearby and that his name was Cole Moreton. He was an interesting, warm and amusing companion and he spoke of wanting to write a novel. I remember well our conversation on how the stories we tell define us, as do, he said, the stories we don’t tell and the ones left unfinished.
It was a pleasure a few years later to be sent his first novel to review. Its themes are piercingly unapologetic — childlessness, grief, suicide, loss, the fragility of relationships, and bereavement’s erratic leadership of our emotions and, often, of life itself. Carefully paced but intense, detached but compelling, the movement of the novel is as enticing and treacherous as the sea and the coastland cliffs it beautifully evokes.
The main characters are Sarah, desperate to have a child; Jack, her confused and frantic husband out searching for her; and the enigmatic “Keeper” of the local lighthouse. Each has suffered a loss. Each is shaped by heartache and the paralysis it gives way to. The light that the Keeper maintains in this landscape is not in his tall building but in his levelled soul, momentary but guiding, helping avoid a complete and widespread wreckage.
For those of you who know your biblical stories, keep a watch out as to people’s names throughout the book and start making your spiritual comparisons. Some might think the characters are undeveloped or the plot occasionally clunky, but I have a sense that this book works in the same way those biblical narratives do. They reveal by inviting us to complete. A passage of the Bible relates to the passage, or way forward, in part of our life. So, too, here, we see ourselves in the faint outlining in character of the deepest mysteries we each partake in every day we suffer or find hope.
For all its lyricism, this book is raw and wild in its depiction of those human realities we must bear. Love, it says, take us to the edge. But it is also the way we teach each other to be better versions of ourselves. Grief erodes us but it also infiltrates, with a potential release, our unawakened lives with all their self-perpetuating lies about who we think we are and how we wish to be seen. I have a feeling we will see more work from Cole Moreton, and I relish the thought of how he will continue to expand and develop his humane, enriching, and provocatively honest take on the world.
Canon Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.
The Light Keeper: Sometimes love takes you to the edge
Marylebone House £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
Listen to Cole Moreton talk to Angela Tilby about the novel on the Church Times Podcast.