They say we’ll never know what happened to those men.
They say the sea keeps its secrets…
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 . . .
Inspired by true events, Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters is a mystery, a ghost story, a folk tale, and a lusciously written literary love story all rolled into one compulsively readable package.
Alternating between 1972 and 1992, the novel tells the story of three lighthouse keepers and their families. Principal Keeper Arthur has spent most of his life on the lights, although his warmth and efficiency hide a personal tragedy that is threatening his seemingly idyllic marriage to Helen. Assistant Keeper Bill has never felt settled either at home or at sea – although his wife Jenny adores their coastal lifestyle and busy family home. Vince headed to the lights to escape from his dark past – although he worries that despite his fresh start and his new girlfriend Michelle, it may still catch up with him.
All three men are stationed on The Maiden – an isolated rock lighthouse surrounded by nothing but the sea, the wind, and the things that whisper in the night – and all three go missing one seemingly ordinary day in 1972. The women in their lives – Helen, Jenny, and Michelle – are left with no explanation for their vanishing. Was it an accident? A murder? Or something more sinister and beyond the realms of the ordinary? When a writer approaches them to seek their stories, they are forced to confront the secrets of their own lives – as well as the darkness that may have lain within the hearts of the men they loved.
Emma Stonex has deftly weaved several voices, timelines, and interconnecting plot strands together in The Lamplighters, skilfully controlling each one to maintain tension whilst never leaving the reader feeling lost or disconnected. Instead, the novel is compulsively readable – grabbing hold on the first page and pulling you in like the sea pulls on the rocks around The Maiden itself.
Each characters is written with depth and realism, their voices jumping from the page. I adored gentle, erudite Arthur – a man lost in his past and unsure of his future in a world where lighthouse keepers are a dying breed – and empathised with his brisk and practical wife Helen, unsure of how to connect to a man who seems to love the sea more than he loves her. Jenny and Bill were more difficult characters – both prickly in their way – but Stonex allowed me to empathise with them for all their sharp edges and to share in their hopes, dreams, and frustrations. And I really felt for Vince and Michelle – two young people just trying to leave the mistakes of the past behind and begin anew. By the end of the novel, I felt like I had got to know all of them – and the ending, when it came, felt like saying goodbye to old friends.
I also felt as if I got to know The Maiden. Lonely and forbidding, the rock lighthouse on which Arthur, Bill and Vinnie are stationed is a much a character as the men and women whose lives revolve around it. Stonex perfectly captures the pull and allure of lighthouses, as well as the dark compulsion of the wild seascape that surrounds them. Alternating between wonder and dread, the novel is thick with atmosphere throughout, and interspersed with lush, vivid descriptions of the sea in all of its wild and terrible beauty.
As you can probably tell, I ADORED The Lamplighters – it’s definitely an early contender for my Books of the Year list and is a definite 5-star read for me. Although based on the story of Eilean Mor on the Flannen Isles – from which three keepers vanished in 1900 – Emma Stonex has crafted a novel that is uniquely her own and that resonates with a powerful sense of love, loss, and humanity. Her deft handling of the supernatural elements of her tale mean that the human stories resonate without being undermined, creating a story that is both compellingly suspenseful but also heart-breakingly moving. A must read and a 5-star recommendation from me.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is published by Picador and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for an advanced e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
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