Book #74

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.

What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?

Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface.

Three men on a lighthouse one day, none the next. The door is locked from the inside, the clocks are stopped, the dinner table is set, but no one is inside. It’s a wonderfully eerie premise, and one which becomes all the more unsettling when you find out it’s a true story.

The novel flicks backwards and forwards between time and narrative. At times we focus on the lives of the three lighthouse keepers in 1972, their daily jobs, their shifts, their feelings of isolation and worry. At others, we jump forward twenty years, and hear the stories of the women they left behind. Stonex does well to differentiate these voices, with the male sections being very efficient and matter of fact, and the female voices being full of emotion, hurt and longing.

In fact, Stonex’s writing skill is in no doubt here. Full of atmosphere and intensity, her depictions of the Cornish coast to the lighthouse itself brought a saltwater taste to my tongue. Her characterisations were raw and real, and she has a particular mastery in creating tension from the simplest of scenarios.

There was never a clear conclusion reached on how these men went missing, however this was something I welcomed. As Stonex has based her novel on a true story, it perhaps wouldn’t be fitting to invent a definite reason, and  to allow the question mark to remain. She did, however, toy with some supernatural elements in her attempt to present a possibility, and these were something which I felt didn’t quite suit the other, very real, aspects of the plot. Although the ambiguity was no doubt intended, I was confused and unsure what it all meant.

Although the mystery of what happened to these men is really what we’re here for, the skill we see in The Lamplighters is not in the discovery of secrets, or the solving of puzzles. Rather, we’re taken into a world most of us know little about, and we see how a lighthouse can affect relationships, feelings, and mental states. The exploration of this was wonderful, and I loved seeing both how the men dealt with their incredibly isolated jobs, and in contrast how the women dealt with their own isolation after their husbands disappeared. It was rich with sensation, and carefully crafted to allow us to understand how we all handle grief differently.

A stunning debut, and one which will creep into your heart, The Lamplighters will suck you into its depths.