May 2016

Teresa Burns Gunther


He Wants by Alison Moore

What does it mean to be 70, having spent a life eschewing desire, living deaf to one's deepest curiosities and silent to the longings of one's heart, and be presented with one last opportunity to leap? Alison Moore explores this question with deep insight and a dreamlike narrative in her haunting second novel, He Wants, a tale of longing, the inevitability of loss, and the dream of second chances.

Alison Moore's debut novel, The Lighthouse, was short listed for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award's New Writer of the Year in 2012, and won The McKitterick Prize 2013. Her short stories have been published in Best British Short Stories anthologies, and the title story of her first collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, forthcoming from Bilioasis in 2017, won a Novella Award.

In He Wants, we find Moore's protagonist, Lewis Sullivan, widowed, living in his father's home in his sleepy village in the Midlands, where he only ever hears one song. A retired secondary school teacher, Lewis is practiced in letting all that he wants slip away. Told in a close third, He Wants explores desire and regret through a rich web of characters, Lewis, Ruth, Sydney and Lawrence, each wrestling with the past and what is left.

At 70, Lewis is without appetite, a man who doesn't want to go out, who travels only "to the bin," with the house address on it "so it won't get lost." Alone, burdened with memory, an aged father in care, and a daughter's grudging devotion, "he does not want the soup she brings," made of the vegetables her son refuses to eat, "but she brings it anyway."

But Lewis finds his tiresome routine shaken. On this day, he "feels a flutter of excitement in his stomach at the thought that something out of the ordinary might be going to happen to him," while across the humdrum little town in which he lives, where he has always lived, a mile from where he grew up, Lewis's long lost childhood friend returns, cloaked in mystery with trouble on his heels. Lewis hasn't seen Sydney, "with a 'y' like the capital of Australia," since the summer of 1961, when this Flash Gordon of Lewis's youth disappeared without a goodbye.

Sydney, unlike Lewis, enters the novel so ravenous he finds "his stomach growling like something at the zoo waiting to be thrown some meat." Through Sydney, Lewis will be forced to revisit memories of the pivotal moments in his past when his failure to act on his desire set the course of his unexplored life and he'll learn that he has more than five senses and one more chance to fly.

"What do you want?" is the question running through the heart of this novel, as it is the mantra through Lewis's revisited life. Each chapter is named for a kind of wanting, from the simplest desire for a cup of tea or to feel an earthquake, to grander longings to fly or to go to the moon. Lewis has wanted many things, but his curiosity and desires have, until now, been beyond his capacity to claim them. In his friend's boyhood bedroom, Lewis once wanted to show him jiu-jitsu moves but Sydney's mother appeared and they never mentioned it again. He wanted to be a scientist, but instead, followed in his father Lawrence's footsteps, taught religious education at the school where his father taught, and settled in as the next L. Sullivan, marrying Edie because his father said it was time.

Lawrence criticized Lewis as a child for being "all want" and now, at 70, Lewis's life is a collection of all that he doesn't want. It's not just the soup his daughter brings:

He does not want cheap Viagra. [...] He does not want bigger, harder, longer lasting erections. He does not want a nineteen-year-old Russian girl or an Australian virgin. [...] He does not want the Federal Government of Nigeria to transfer fifteen million United States dollars into his bank account.

He can no longer go to his favorite pub, so he goes to his second favorite to have a shandy and specialty sausage and speak with Miranda because he knows she will be nice to him. "What Lewis really wants is one of Edie's steak and kidney puddings, her chicken curry, her hotpot." But it is too late for that too. Edie is dead. And in his second-favorite pub, the last delicious thing has just been taken. Lewis has only once acted on impulse, but to disastrous effect.

Lewis visits his father, in his nineties, lingering in a nursing home, drifting under the weight of his own regrets and childhood memories. The nurses responsible for Lawrence's care dismiss him as a man who "always wants something." Lewis, with the help of his long-lost friend will deliver to his father the one thing he wants: a recording of Handel's Messiah.

In spare yet powerful prose, our understanding of Lewis' history, his losses and regrets, weave through surprising plot twists and escalating tension, deftly dissecting the themes of loneliness, the weight of memory, anxiety, and regret. The sense of loss is palpable from the beginning, the deepest longing rendered inevitable, making the extraordinary events at the end of Lewis's day all the more powerful. Rich with metaphor -- doors that stay locked, doors that won't close, the Second Coming, hunger, "Bliss Tempest" -- Moore's novel is written with quiet humor in lyric and rhythmic language that will leave the reader with a powerful and lingering sense of yearning.

While the question of how we wrestle with mortality is not new, Moore explores this struggle through layered complexity, touching on the myriad ways we deal with death throughout our lives. In He Wants, Moore reminds us that death is guaranteed, loss is inevitable, that living is our only option, and all that's left is to want to live, to live boldly, in the time we have left.

He Wants by Alison Moore
ISBN: 978-1771960564
172 pages