The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is a difficult story both to describe and to compartmentalise in genre. I, mistaken by the Author’s Note at the beginning which refers to a true incident in 1900, thought I would be reading a historical story. The action is set in 1972 and 1992. The genre is variously described as horror, ghost, thriller, suspense and mystery. I saw no evidence of ghosts and it doesn’t feel to me like a thriller. It is a story of human emotions and the consequences of actions, set against the atmospheric backdrop of the sea.
Cornwall, 1972. The Maiden Rock, a lighthouse on a rock tower out at sea, is the scene of a mysterious disappearance. When the relief boat arrives, all three men who should have been on the rock have gone. Are they dead, kidnapped, drowned, or disappeared to start a new life? The story of principal keeper Arthur Black, assistant keeper Bill Walker, and supernumerary assistant keeper Vince Bourne is told in two timelines – the men’s stories in 1972 and that of their wives 20 years later when they answer the questions of a journalist researching a book about the disappearances. But why now? And what secrets does he think these women have hidden all these years?
Stonex writes beautifully about the sea, the rugged beauty, the loneliness it conjures in the minds of men alone, within sight of their loved ones on shore but a million miles from their touch. The men’s lives are driven by the sun and the moon, the regimen of keeping their light going. Arthur loves early morning the best; ‘The time I think of you the most is when the sun comes up. The moment before, the minute or two, when night yawns for morning and the sea starts to separate from the sky. Day after day the sun comes back. I don’t know why. I’ve had my light safe here, shining through the dark and I’ll keep it shining: the sun needn’t bother today. But still he comes and still come my thoughts of you.’
The three men are loners, they have to be to survive the rigours of their job and living conditions. Being a lighthouse keeper attracts a certain personality. Each man has his own way of coping with the empty time; Bill carves seashells, they all smoke constantly. They talk politics, the space race, the Cold War. Each man has his loves, regrets, secrets, guilts and griefs. Are these on-shore things irrelevant to life at the Maiden, or do real life events invade their isolated world-within-a-world? Each man dwells in his own mind and as the weather worsens, the mind begins to play tricks.
This is more a story about the three men on the Maiden and less a closed-room thriller, less a what-happened-here mystery. And I was drawn more to the characters of the three men – their life on the Maiden, the effect of their isolation surrounded by the might of the sea and weather – than on the three women ashore and the answer to the mystery.
BUY THE BOOK
If you like this, try:-
‘Wolf Winter’ by Cecilia Eckback
‘Little Deaths’ by Emma Flint
‘Himself’ by Jess Kidd
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE LAMPLIGHTERS by @StonexEmma #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5cz via @SandraDanby