Book Review

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…

Inspired by real events, The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is an intoxicating and suspenseful mystery, an unforgettable story of love and grief that explores the way our fears blur the line between the real and the imagined.

The Lamplighters is one of those novels that caused quite a buzz when it was published earlier this year.  Having (finally!) read it, I fully understand why.  I absolutely loved it, and fully expect it to appear in my books of the year post come December.

I love the way in which the novel is set up.  Twenty years after the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers posted offshore, an author approaches their partners to understand their sides of the story and to hopefully solve the puzzle surrounding these three men. It’s a simple yet effective framework that allows for the inclusion of multiple perspectives, but also allows the reader to really get inside the minds of these women that were left behind.  One element of this I particularly enjoyed is that it allows Stonex to gradually reveal more information as various secrets come to light.  Each testimony reveals a little more information, making the reader constantly reassess what they think they know, and it casts doubt upon the characters themselves as you wonder what else they haven’t told you yet.

We also get flashbacks to 1972 and the events in the lighthouse itself in the weeks and days running up to the disappearance of Arthur, Bill, and Vince.  This provides insight directly into the lives and minds of the lighthouse keepers themselves, and highlights the strain that these men are under due to the unusual circumstances of being isolated several miles offshore for weeks at a time with nowhere to escape to.  I thought the Emma successfully brought the realities of being a lighthouse keeper to life – both the job and what it entails (beyond the obvious!) but also the psychological impact of being offshore in relative isolation for long periods of time with only their fellow keepers for company.  It’s certainly not a job for everyone.  The characterisation in this novel is top notch, but particularly for the men on their lighthouse – their isolation and the impact that it has is portrayed brilliantly. 

I also love the way in which the sea is brought to life, almost becoming a character in its own right.  I love the sea, and yet it terrifies me at times – particularly that thought that you never know what’s beneath you in deep water.  I love the way in which we see the different aspects of the sea throughout the novel – the sheer power of it and its many moods are brought to life brilliantly.  And always there is the lighthouse, The Maiden, watching over everything.  For me, the lighthouse took on the role of a mistress – and I’m sure that the name isn’t entirely coincidental in this respect – always on the minds of the keepers even when they are onshore and calling them back just as they’ve settled into their home life and something resembling normality.  And she’s kept her secrets for twenty years, too.  I think that she comes to haunt (or perhaps taunt?) those left behind, her presence a constant reminder of what they’ve lost.

The Lamplighters is a fantastic novel – part drama, part locked room mystery (an actual locked room mystery!) with subtle hints of the supernatural.  It’s explores themes of grief and the weight of the secrets we bear as well as the importance of communication.  Published by Picador, it’s available now in hardback, eBook, and audio formats.


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