Emma Stonex takes as her inspiration for The Lamplighters a real event from 1900, where three lighthouse keepers vanished from the Flannan Isles Lighthouse on Eilean Mòr in the Outer Hebrides. Moving the action to Cornwall in 1972 and making hers a rock lighthouse, fifteen miles off the coast from Lands End, she creates a compelling locked room mystery together with a mesmerising story of the sea and the men who choose a life of isolation for themselves (and their families) on the outer edges of our island nation.
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 . . .
I spent my childhood in North Devon (with day trips into Cornwall) and on the Isle of Wight, so it would have been hard not to grow up fascinated by the sea and everything connected with it. Even now, the nearest coast to me is only 20 miles away by car, although with covid restrictions here in Wales, it might as well have been 20,000 this past year. I’ve craved sea stories more than ever, which is why it’ll probably come as little surprise that The Lamplighters was high on my list of anticipated reads for 2021.
The Lamplighters opens with Jory, a boatman from the inauspiciously-named Mortehaven, listening to a morning news item about a missing girl before setting out for the Maiden Rock with a relief keeper. It foreshadows the mystery closer to home that he’ll soon find himself inadvertently drawn into, while also giving someone who knows the waters between the village harbour and the lighthouse the opportunity to describe them. And Emma Stonex makes exceptionally good use of this, feeding the senses to give full expression to their power and force, dangers and volatility. She does it so well that I only felt myself being sucked into the story in the same way you notice too late that you’re sinking into wet sand, when the tide’s already rushing back out to sea, pulling you forward with it. She tumbled me into Jory’s boat and carried me out to the Maiden Rock, buffeted by the waves and feeling the tang of salt on my lips as he steered us out to that deserted rock, and I didn’t want to find my land legs again until I knew she was going to take me safely back to shore.
Emma Stonex tells her story by switching between the three keepers’ contemporaneous accounts of what happened in those last few days and their wives’ and girlfriend’s recollections some twenty years on in 1992, when a writer contacts them about the men’s disappearance for a book he’s writing. If you have any romantic notions about lighthouses and the men who worked them, prepare to have these shattered. The Lamplighters is a remarkable look at the lives and characters of both the men who chose this career path and the women who they meet or get swept along with them from coast to coast. There is no one type here and it’s fascinating to see how and why the men have arrived where they are, how they manage their lives in close proximity to each other, and what difference the hierarchy in their roles and their own character play in this.
The isolation the men and the women experience in The Lamplighters is neither splendid nor very noble. Emma Stonex does an excellent job of showing us how each man or woman experiences it and responds to it differently. For the men, life on Maiden Rock can be mundane. They each have behaviours, some more obsessive than others, which may seem like foibles but once explained make some sense. It’s often unsettling to see where their thoughts take them and interesting to see which hobbies they turn to and how they measure time. For the women left behind on shore, it’s fascinating to see how they they feel about their men, the lighthouse and sea which separate them, each other and life in the keepers’ cottages. Alongside the shared experiences is an ample sprinkling of secrets, misunderstandings and an inability to be honest or open which further complicate and affect relations between the men and women of the story.
The Lamplighters works on a number of levels for me. Emma Stonex’s powerful descriptions of the sea and weather conditions conjure them up around me. (I felt sure the sprayed edges of my copy would become salt-tipped pages by the time I finished reading.) Emma Stonex also creates a real sense of the claustrophobia felt, both on- and off-shore, and how the presence of the Maiden Rock herself feeds into that. And I enjoyed and appreciated how the mystery, or, rather, the two mysteries in the book were resolved towards the end, with enough information and clues given that we could try and solve the puzzles sooner but an equal amount of misdirection to throw us off, too.
There are almost as many different emotions and feelings at play in this book as there are changes in the weather. The Lamplighters is an enthralling story of love and loss, loneliness and isolation, longing and obsession, secrets and lies, misconceptions and a hidden identity, together with a cracking closed-room mystery at its heart. I experienced these as keenly as I felt the wind and rain, tasted the sea spray and salt, and reached for the set-off when we neared the Maiden Rock on that first heady boat trip. I loved The Lamplighters and can only urge you to read it.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is published by Picador, the literary imprint of Pan Macmillan. It is available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback. You can find it at Amazon UK, Bookshop UK or Waterstones, which has a (signed) copy with beautiful sprayed edges available. Emma Stonex is the author of several books under a pseudonym and The Lamplighters is her debut novel under her own name. You can find her on Twitter.
The Lamplighters blog tour started on 25 February and runs until 13 April. Details of the first two weeks are included here and in the post header image.