Upon the cliffs of a remote Scottish island, Lòn Haven, stands a lighthouse.
A lighthouse that has weathered more than storms.
Mysterious and terrible events have happened on this island. It started with a witch hunt. Now, centuries later, islanders are vanishing without explanation.
Coincidence? Or curse?
Liv Stay flees to the island with her three daughters, in search of a home. She doesn’t believe in witches, or dark omens, or hauntings. But within months, her daughter Luna will be the only one of them left.
Twenty years later, Luna is drawn back to the place her family vanished. As the last sister left, it’s up to her to find out the truth . . .
But what really happened at the lighthouse all those years ago?
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ll probably have realised that my reading taste is heavily skewed in favour of the Gothic, especially during the autumn and winter seasons. So when the blog tour invite for C. J. Cooke’s The Lighthouse Witches landed in my inbox – with its isolated setting, spooky setting (The Longing – was there ever a better name for a creepy abandoned lighthouse?), and promise of historical witchy mystery – I sensed Shelf of Unread catnip and signed on up!
When struggling single mother Liv is commissioned to paint a mural in The Longing, a 100-year-old lighthouse on the remote Scottish island of Lòn Haven, she sees it as an opportunity for a fresh start for her and her three daughters – fifteen-year-old Sapphire, nine-year-old Luna, and seven-year-old Clover. But all is not as it seems on Lòn Haven. Local legend says The Longing is built above a cave used to imprison and torture local women accused of witchcraft, and there are tales of Wildlings – supernatural creatures mimicking human children – wandering the local woodland.
Twenty-two years later, Luna is the only member of the Stay family still left. Now pregnant with her own child, she is left haunted by her time on Lòn Haven. All Luna knows is that she was found, apparently abandoned, in the woods near The Longing. Her sisters and mother have been missing ever since. So when Luna gets a call to say that Clover has been found, she is overjoyed at the thought of reuniting with her sister and discovering what happened on Lòn Haven all those years ago. Indeed, Clover is exactly the sister Luna remembers: she is, in fact, still the seven-year-old girl who vanished into the night all those years ago. How can Clover have been missing for so long yet not aged a day? Could there be more to the tales of Wildlings and witches’ curses than Luna believes? One thing is certain: Luna will have to return to Lòn Haven – and to The Longing – to find out.
I really loved the way that history and folklore is woven through every strand of this book. Like all good folk tales, there are a number of elements (such as the re-emergence of a still-seven-year-old Clover) that require you to suspend your disbelief and just roll with the story, but it is the premise for a brilliant mystery that is founded upon the (very real) history of the Scottish witch trials and the appalling fate of many of the the Scottish ‘witches’. C. J. Cooke has very cleverly woven this folklore into a tale of contemporary life – of mother/daughter tension, teenage rebellion, the bond between sisters, and the fraught paths that young women navigate as they move from childhood to adolescence and beyond.
Whilst I did initially find the structure a little confusing – the book switches between Luna in the present day, the perspectives of Liv and Sapphire in 1998, and a third, older perspective with some characters appearing across multiple timelines – perseverance paid off and I became thoroughly engrossed in the mystery of Lòn Haven and in discovering exactly what had happened to Liv, Sapphire, Luna, and Clover all those years ago.
C. J. Cooke perfectly realises the isolated loneliness of The Longing and infuses even the smallest of gestures and symbols with a creeping atmosphere of suspicion and claustrophobia – which makes for an intense and page-turning reading experience! Characters are also really well conveyed – from Liv’s watchful desperation to the haughty resentment and anxiety of teenager Sapphire, I really felt as if I was in their shoes when reading. And whilst many of the characters make what can be termed ‘poor life choices’, I felt really sympathy for the predicaments that they found themselves within – and for their inadvertent entanglement with forces beyond their control.
I did have a couple of issues with the logic of The Lighthouse Witches at times. I find it quite hard to believe that any police force or social services team would release a seven-year-old child so soon after her rediscovery – especially since this little girl has been missing for two decades, can’t explain where she’s been, and apparently hasn’t aged a day. At times like this, the magical elements of the story don’t quite line up with the realism of the situation and, for a moment or two, it jolted me out of the world of the novel. This is, I admit, logical nit-picking – as I said at the start of this review, folk tales often require you to suspend your disbelief and, as this novel uses folklore for much of its base, its unsurprising to find that the book requires the occasional leap of faith from its readers. But if you do like all your plotlines wrapped up with logical explanations, consider yourself forewarned.
Overall, however, I found The Lighthouse Witches to be a compelling, unsettling, and enchanting read. C. J. Cooke has expertly woven folklore and history into her contemporary tale to create a modern thriller suffused with the claustrophobic and chilling atmosphere of a classic Gothic novel. With its wonderfully evocative setting and relatable, flawed characters, The Lighthouse Witches provided a page-turning and atmospheric read that is sure to delight fans of Cooke’s previous work – and to garner her plenty of new ones too.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 21 October 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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