Book Review: The Famished Heart by Nicola White – an unusual crime story set in 1980s Dublin

I picked up The Famished Heart, initially thinking it would be a bit like Dervla McTiernan’s brilliant crime series featuring Cormac Reilly. They both have lead police officers who don’t fit in with their colleagues and a boss who probably doesn’t like them either. You get a good deal of police station politics in both. But this book is more of a slow-burner that reminded me of some of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels (now there’s a blast from the past!) with its focus on a small community and psychological drama.

We’ve got three main narrative points of view. Father Timoney is the unlucky priest called to visit two middle-aged sisters in his parish who haven’t been seen in weeks. What he finds would shock even the most seasoned of clerics: the Macnamara sisters have apparently starved to death, possibly willingly for religious reasons. Timoney has his own problems too. He’s only been in his parish a few months, has a dwindling congregation, an unheated church that is an architectural monstrosity, and a spiteful housekeeper. Throw in back pain and a lack of confidence and he’s really struggling.

Frances Macnamara is the sister that got away. She’s a glamorous actress who, now in her forties, is finding it hard to get well-paid roles, leaving her strapped for cash. She’s in New York when she receives the news of her sisters’ deaths. Flying home she teams up with a niece who was supposed to look in on her aunts, but there’d been a falling out with the older sister and she’s living in a grungy flat. So there’s nowhere for Frances to stay but in the house where it all happened. They soon get the keys because the police don’t think the deaths suspicious.

Well, Detective Inspector Vincent Swan thinks they’re suspicious; someone’s wiped any fingerprints from the door handles and made a crude arrangement of some ornamental animals. But Swan’s being stood down while there’s an investigation into police brutality. He’s not a violent man, unlike the two officers also under investigation, the kind of officers he really doesn’t get along with. Just as well Detective Garda Gina Considine is on the job. She’s the only female officer on the team and suffers sexism on a daily basis – this is Dublin in the ’80s, after all. But she’s smart and a good pairing for sensitive and thoughtful Swan.

Just when you think this story is all about religious mania – and to some extent it is – another death leads our two detectives in another direction and the plot really heats up. You finish the book thinking this is a satisfying mystery, but you’ve also come to know the characters really well. White writes about relationships superbly – throwing people together and seeing how they spark off each other and then come to new realisations. This makes you want to check in with Vincent Swan another time, so it’s good news that this is the start of a series. The second book is an earlier novel and book number three is out next year. A Famished Heart scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Wildling Sisters by Eve Chase

Stories featuring old houses in the English countryside and a dark secret from the past are always entertaining. Throw in four sisters on the brink of adulthood with a glamorous but unreliable mother, two dangerous young men and an aunt who is, well, a bit batty and you’ve got the ingredients for an engrossing read.

The Wildling Sisters (or The Vanishing of Audrey Wilde) starts off with a body being dragged to a hiding place, a brief scene laced with foreboding, then flips to 50 years later when a young family are considering buying a crumbling mansion in the country. They are escaping London to start again. Jessie and Will have a preschool-age Romy in tow, as well as Bella, Will’s teenage daughter. Bella is surly and uncommunicative following her mother’s death and having to cope with a step-mother. An incident at her London school had her expelled and also makes Jessie uneasy about Romy’s safety.

The family discover Applecote, a large country house in need of repair that also bears a shadow – the disappearance of twelve-year-old Audrey Wilde in the 1950s. The locals won’t come near it and while Will gets stuck in London for work, Jessie has to deal with the burden of the new move and Bella’s bad behaviour with little support.

The story flips back to the heatwave of a 1950s summer that sees the four Wilde sisters staying with their distracted Aunt Sybil and peculiar Uncle Perry. Grief over their missing cousin Audrey consumes Sybil, and Margot at fifteen is aware of how similar she is to Audrey. She sneaks into Audrey’s room, a kind of shrine to her cousin, and admires her clothes.

And the sisters are a little wild to be sure. They’re also beautiful and have the confidence of their class and having a mother who hasn’t imposed a lot of rules. It’s just as well they have each other to rely on. Things get complicated when Harry Gore from the neighbouring estate and his friend Tom turn up by the river and flirt with the girls.

Yes, there’s a river – the logical place for Audrey to have disappeared, but there are also standing stones that add an air of youthful sacrifice, and endless summer heat that stirs the emotions. Margot tries to get a sense of what happened to her cousin, while dealing with a yearning for Harry and an emotionally demanding aunt.

There’s plenty to keep you turning the pages here; Chase keeping you guessing with cliffhangers at the end of each chapter as the story flips back and forth between narrators. Each of our main characters, Jessie, Margot and even Bella, have to deal with worrying events, as well as their tentative place in their families. This lifts the novel above being just a story about a scary house with a dark secret. Both Jessie and Margot will learn a lot before the end of the book when the puzzle pieces finally slot into place.

I really enjoyed my first Eve Chase novel. It’s a bit like reading Katherine Webb crossed with Ruth Ware and the writing is crisp and elegant too. A great escapist read, The Wildling Sisters gets a four out of five from me.

New Books for the Must Read List

Towards the end of the year, all the new books appear that publishers are keen to push for Christmas. Here’s a look at some of the titles I’m excited about, most of them authors I’ve read before and admire hugely.

The Magician by Colm Toibin
This novel describes the life of Thomas Mann, a complex man, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and a secret homosexual, living in Munich among the bohemian and intellectual set. This in itself makes for an interesting story. But throw in the rise of Naziism, the rumblings of war and the development of fascism and communism across Europe, and the scope of the novel expands hugely. At one time I really enjoyed the novels of Thomas Mann. I found them engrossing for the richness of the writing, the characters and the way they captured an interesting time and place, so this one is definitely one for the list.

The Gardener by Salley Vickers
This novel about two sisters who buy a cottage in the country with an overgrown garden, and the Albanian gardener they hire to tame it, is sure to be a good read. Family dynamics, secrets and an English rural setting are always appealing in fiction. Vickers is a terrific writer as she puts her own varied careers as an actress, cleaner and psychoanalyst to good use in her novels. She is wonderful with characters and the turning points in their lives that define them. I loved Dancing Backwards, Cousins and Miss Garnet’s Angel so I am really looking forward to this one.

Oh, William by Elizabeth Strout
Lucy Barton is a character who crops up here and there in Elizabeth Strout’s novels set in Maine. Not so long ago, she had a book to herself – My Name Is Lucy Barton – and her story continues in the new book which according to the blurb captures ‘the enduring bond between a divorced couple in a poignant novel about love, loss and the family secrets that can erupt and bewilder us at any point in life’. Some readers may regret the story doesn’t focus on that unforgettable character Olive Kitteridge, but I’m rather glad to have the chance to check in with Lucy again.

Lily: a tale of revenge by Rose Tremain
Tremain has been writing stellar novels since the 1970s. I loved The Gustav Sonata and The Road Home for the plotting and characters written with immense humanity. The new book is set in Victorian London, following the life of a foundling, her attempts to make a living for herself and the terrible secret she hides. It sounds a gripping story in itself with an atmospheric setting but add Tremain’s brilliant credentials as a novelist and this is sure to be a very satisfying read.

A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford
Not long ago I reviewed The Lost Lights of St Kilda, a wonderfully atmospheric historical novel based on a community eking out an existence on a wild Scottish island. Now we’ve got a new story, similarly set in a remote part of Scotland, with an old country estate, family secrets and a kind of cold case mystery at its heart. Gifford is becoming one of those authors you can depend on for an engaging and haunting read so here’s one for the bedside pile.

The Shadows of Men by Abir Mukherjee
Making its way to the top of my list is the new Wyndam/Banerjee novel set in 1920s Calcutta. While these are mystery novels in one sense, they also describe a lot of the politics of the day, the rule of the British and the racial tensions that simmer beneath it. There’s heat and dust, the heady 1920s, class and privilege. The writing is witty, and Mukherjee doesn’t stint from throwing Wyndham into some truly precarious situations to keep the plot simmering. In The Shadows of Men, the two policemen investigate the death of a Hindu theologian while the city is on the brink of religious war.

Book Review: Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale

I thought this novel was going to be about a man facing down cancer, but it’s actually a coming of age story, bracketed by what might be a very treatable cancer diagnosis and a new relationship. And music. I love novels that take you on a journey of your own. With Take Nothing With You, I found myself visiting YouTube to discover or rediscover the beautiful cello pieces described in the book.

Eustace lives with his parents in an elegant inherited house in Weston-Super-Mare. His parents run it as a rest home, which makes for Eustace, their only child, an unusual childhood. While he must be quiet and not disturb the guests, he is also left a lot to his own devices. It’s a family living in a kind of genteel poverty; they never go away on holiday because they live at a seaside resort – what could be nicer?

As he grows up, a cello concert is a revelation and brings Carla, his new music teacher into his family’s world. Carla is warm and intuitive, passionate and generous. She spots a talent in Eustace and fosters it, as well as striking up a fond friendship with Eustace’s apparently friendless mother. You get a lot of music detail as Eustace learns about fingering and the complexities of playing solo or with a group. If you like classical music this is really interesting and Gale has the insight of an accomplished musician. As Eustace develops musically, he also becomes aware of his sexuality and this forms another thread in the story.

Eustace is a sensitive character who always seems to be just missing out. At the start of the book he has just fallen in love, while receiving a cancer diagnosis. His education is full of missteps as well. The reader wants him to reach out and grab life with both hands. In the background, his parents’ restrictive lifestyle, strains upon their marriage, his mother’s moment of recklessness all affect the story in interesting and dramatic ways.

Patrick Gale writes with warmth and wit creating a brilliant story arc that captures the man that is Eustace, as well as the boy. The subordinate characters are just as interesting, each empathetic in their own way. And the settings: the Somerset seafront town, the music school in Scotland, plus the 1970s, are evocatively created here too. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to read this, but it was a complete joy because Gale is such a beautiful writer. And I am delighted to see that he has a new novel out early next year. This one scores a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley – a tense mystery that keeps you guessing

This novel is very similar in structure to The Guest List, Foley’s later book (which I reviewed last year) so it’s hard not to make comparisons. Both use the same before and now time shifts and leave the reader guessing not only who the murderer is – there are multiple candidates – but also the identity of the victim. The cast of characters – victims, witnesses and suspects – is cut off from the world by a weather event in both books. So beginning the earlier book, I asked myself, should I feel a little short-changed?

But in no time The Hunting Party swept me off into the story, because Foley is superb at creating tension and drama. The scenario is a group of nine friends who take the train for a weekend away in Scotland to see in the New Year at a remote hunting lodge. Most of them have been friends since university, although it is Emma, a more recent addition to the group, who arranges everything. She’s here as she’s Mark’s girlfriend. Mark is Julian’s best mate and Julian is married to Miranda, and these two are the alpha couple of the group. Julian and Miranda are fabulously wealthy and incredibly good looking. They seem to have it all and as we know that means trouble, particularly with their continued disregard for other people’s feelings.

The lodge is run by two live-in staff. Heather, recovering from loss, prefers her own company and the quiet of the remote setting. Doug is also running away from something – a checkered past that includes PTSD from his stints as a soldier in Afghanistan. His past is littered with violence, and he’s in charge of the shooting. You can’t help wondering what it might take to set him off. The presumptuousness and bad behaviour of a group of drunk friends might just do the trick.

Not long into the story there is a snow storm which turns the hunting lodge and its grounds into an island. When a body is found, emergency services are unable to send help until the weather lets up, leaving Heather and Doug to manage the situation – two very fragile people.

As I said, Foley is a master at building tension, the before and now time-frame keeps you guessing, but slowly fills you in with what’s going on in the heads of several characters, as well as their interactions with others. The party of friends are mostly people you wouldn’t want to spends a lot time with. There are supreme displays of arrogance and one-up-manship, and multiple secrets. Games of Twister and Truth or Dare oiled with an abundance of alcohol as well as drugs don’t help. It’s easy to empathise with Heather and even Doug, who appear vulnerable. Can they trust each other enough to keep things from boiling over?

The story bounces along to a tense ending where more violence is set to happen and the method and motives keep you guessing till the end. Overall I had to feel happy with the story as I was well entertained. The audiobook version I listened to was well-done and brought the book to life superbly. But I wonder if Lucy Foley will break out with a new type of story for her next novel. A better class of beach read, I’m going to give The Hunting Party a three and a half out of five.

Book Review: I Couldn’t Love You More by Esther Freud – three women and the secret that divides them

Esther Freud’s new novel looks at the impact of a secret adoption on three generations of women. When Kate tries to find her birth mother, she’s not really at a good place emotionally to deal with what she might find. Her relationship with Matt is going through some difficulties and she has her daughter, Freya, to consider. Freya seems to be oddly obsessed with death for one so young. And then there’s the idea in the back of her head – why did her mother give her away? And it’s too difficult to discuss all this with her adoptive mother, who could so easily feel betrayed.

If you could give me … I try out the phrases as I help prepare the lunch, but my mother is explaining the best way to make gravy and I don’t interrupt. Afterwards she takes Freya to say goodbye to the bees. She has three hives, white clapboard, a surprising hobby for someone so concerned with peril.”

The story flips through the years to tell the story of Kate’s mother, Rosaleen, beautiful and headstrong, who escapes Ireland at eighteen for London. Her much older lover, an up and coming sculptor, has found her a job at a London newspaper where she works in the mail department, although that’s not what she tells them back home. Her family believe Rosaleen is a journalist, and her name will appear in bylines in the Express any day.

Meanwhile back in Ireland, Rosaleen’s mother Aoife (pronounced Eefa), can’t help missing her eldest daughter. Her story takes us through her marriage to Cashel, whose strict notions of propriety echo that of many Irish households in the mid 1900s. A girl who becomes pregnant is no better than she should be and must be hidden away in shame, her baby taken to a respectable family. We see the other side of this, the convents who ran laundries on the back of the free labour young pregnant girls offer in return for board and secrecy.

This is a story that has been told before, but Freud makes it fresh through her empathy for her characters. We’re taken back to the sixties, and a slice of the artistic Demi-monde, through the eyes of a young girl who for a budding reporter, doesn’t ask nearly enough questions. We’re also back in rural Ireland, with farming and rain and the endless round of chores. And then there’s Freya’s world, herself an artist, working as an art therapist, when maybe she needs a bit of therapy herself.

It’s always a joy to read Esther Freud and this novel didn’t disappoint. It took me a while to settle into the style though. I know we read a lot of books with multiple narrative viewpoints and these were clear enough through chapter headings. But the time switches confused me a little to begin with. Perhaps the disjointed time frame mirrors Kate’s state of mind – she doesn’t know where she is with Matt, her job, and the past keeps intruding on her thoughts.

If you want to read a book that takes you right into the hearts of its characters, revealing their pain – there’s a lot of it here – and their struggles to make a future, I Couldn’t Love You More is a terrific read. It’s also a powerful reminder of historic injustices against women and that the feminist movement has come a long way. The scenes in the convent that takes in Rosaleen are horrific. It’s a moving story told simply and elegantly and after a break since Mr Mac and Me (seven years!), worth the wait. Let’s hope there’s another book around the corner as Freud’s one of my favourites. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Appeal by Janice Hallett – page-turner told in emails and texts

The epistolary novel has become a popular trend mirroring the many options we have for communicating these days. But I’m not sure I’ve come across one that’s a murder mystery before. The Appeal deals with a murder that has been tried in court, a perpetrator found guilty, the case supposedly done and dusted. Fearing a miscarriage of justice, Roderick Tanner, QC, calls upon two articled clerks, Charlotte and Femi, to plough through the evidence to try and establish what really happened.

The story is told via this correspondence between suspects, a chronological collection of mostly emails between witnesses as well as texts between the legal team. Throw in a few police interviews and newspaper articles and you’ve got an interesting mix.

We don’t know who was killed until late in the story, but Hallett builds a picture of a small community with, at its heart, an alpha family – Martin and Grace Hayward who own the Grange and manage the Fairway Players, an amateur theatre group. They have all the status that goes with their stately home. Grace Hayward is a former actress who steals every scene when on stage and Martin directs.

Among the players, Issy Beck writes a lot of emails, cheery little notes of support particularly to her new colleague at the hospital, Samantha and her husband Kel Greenwood. The Greenwoods are recently back in England after years working with aid agencies in Africa and there are hints they left under a cloud. But Issy, lonely, mousy and lacking any kind of standing with her colleagues or community, is determined to be Sam’s friend, encouraging her and Kel to audition for the new play.

But barely have the Greenwoods joined the Fairway Players and the troupe started learning their lines than Martin Hayward drops the bombshell that their grand-daughter Poppy has a rare form of brain cancer. The emails track the huge support the players and other locals show the Haywards, and suddenly the story is more about the massive fundraising that takes place to pay for ground-breaking treatment from the United States. A lot of money is involved and potential complications of trust and misuse are thrown into the mix.

Janice Hallett does a terrific job of evoking the personalities and motives of her characters through what they write to each other. The confusion and questions Femi and Charlotte reveal in their text messages to each other mirror what you feel as a reader, but slowly it all begins to make sense, answering the five main questions Tanner asks of his clerks. Police interview transcripts and reports, oddly enough, don’t shed a lot of light as people are obviously lying or haven’t a clue, which makes the book seem more realistic somehow.

I wasn’t sure I would have picked up a mystery written in this format if I hadn’t read glowing reviews of The Appeal. Through Hallett’s skill, instead of hampering the reader, the emails, texts and sundry correspondence cohere to create a gripping page-turner and I whipped through the novel, eager to see if the things I’d noticed were as important as I thought they might be. I came away thinking the book was really very clever and very well done. A four out of five read from me.

Book Review: Black Out by John Lawton – noirish wartime thriller

I couldn’t remember why I’d put Black Out on my Must Read list. It must have been recommended in glowing tones somewhere as it doesn’t have the look of the kind of book I normally read. But when I eventually picked it up, I was soon hooked. And that’s in spite of it beginning with a grisly discovery – a severed arm on a bomb site.

We’re in London, 1944, and the Blitz has turned whole blocks into rubble. You’d think it would be easy to pass off a killing as death by explosion and get away with it. Fortunately, Sergeant Troy of Scotland Yard knows murder when he sees it. Soon he’s connected it to another death and a disappearance, men who have recently turned up in Britain from Germany. Why would anyone bring them across in the middle of a war just to kill them in this cloak and dagger way?

The plot will involve the American secret service (Office of Strategic Services – which will soon be the CIA) as well as an underground group of Communist sympathisers. There is not one femme fatale , but two, one of them rather short and the other rather tall.

Sergeant Freddie Troy is himself an interesting character. The son of Russian emigré parents, his father made his fortune in newspapers. So Troy went to Harrow, but eschewed university for the police. At twenty-eight, he has decided to stick with the police rather than enlisting in one of the services. Why should he fight for a country that interned his older brother and his uncle? But London in the Blitz is no picnic. Here’s Troy getting a bit of a lecture from older brother, Rod.

‘…The war was, as you put it, good to me. I rather think I enjoyed it. But you didn’t did you?’ You got shot – “
‘Twice.”
‘Stabbed.’
‘Four times.’
‘Bombed.’
‘Twice again.’
‘Beaten up.’
‘More times than I can count. Look, Rod, what’s the point you’re tying to make? You’re not telling me all this tosh just to let me know I missed a trick by not volunteering.’

While I tired a little of the women in Troy’s life, the tall and the short, and even Troy is a cold fish at times, I did enjoy other characters immensely. The pathologist, Kolankievicz, is a wonderful creation with his wild ear hair and colourful language; you don’t want to mess with Superintendent Onions who is bluntly North of England and bull-headed, and then there’s Troy’s side-kick, DC Wildeve who has a gift for intuition and general smarts. Troy and Wildeve are known at the Yard as ‘the tearaway toffs’. Even the scruffy kids who find the arm in scene one are each interesting in their own way, while there’s an eccentric Russian uncle who holds forth on Speaker’s Corner.

Troy’s kind of interesting too, trying to manage all the people in his life and failing miserably. He’s a loner at heart and often his own worst enemy. The story bounces along with a good mix of action, police deduction and Troy getting things wrong, with short, sharp chapters that make for an easy read. But most of all, I enjoyed the smart writing. The dialogue is crisp and a bombed-out London evocatively described.

Black Out is the first book in the series and with the war coming to a close and a peace that will be challenging once the Iron Curtain comes down, there is plenty of potential character development for Troy in the books that follow – although the books seem to jump around a bit chronologically. There’s lots to enjoy here and I shall certainly check in with Troy again. Black Out gets a three and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Offing by Benjamin Myers – an unlikely friendship in post-war England

This is one of those small novels that deals with some big things and ties them together in a beautiful package – the perfect little book really. The Offing is told from the point of view of sixteen-year-old Robert Appleyard starting off in the summer of 1946. The world has been turned on its head by war and people are still struggling to get back to normal life. Robert, a Yorkshire coal minder’s son, is destined for the pit, but before his exam results arrive, he decides to pack a sleeping bag and some spare socks and explore the land beyond his home town. He picks up odd jobs here and there, and turns up one day on Dulcie Piper’s doorstep.

Dulcie lives near the sea, surrounded by fields, with a vegetable garden, a larder full of delicatessen items she’s cadged in various ways, and more than a few overflowing bookshelves. She’s an eccentric, getting on a bit, with only Butler, her German shepherd for company. When Robert appears, hot, thirsty and in need of a meal, she invites him to tea and he stays on for his first experience of lobster. And so begins a rich and rewarding friendship.

Any reader would imagine that Dulcie has life well sorted – she’s pretty self-sufficient, grows and forages the ingredients for wonderful meals, has her books and memories. But as Robert stays on and helps around the place – fixing up the garden that is threatened by weeds, and later rebuilding a dilapidated summer-house – he slowly teases from Dulcie her story. And it’s one of tragedy. Dulcie on her part introduces Robert to literature, finding the poetry that will light up Robert’s world and help him consider a life beyond the pit.

‘They made us read Shakespeare.’
‘The sonnets?’
‘Romeo and Juliet, I think it was.’
Dulcie screwed up her face. ‘That’s not poetry,’ she said. ‘That’s archaic drama, written to be performed on theatre stages, not read aloud in stuffy classrooms. Presented incorrectly and out of context it will put you off for life, but a good poem shucks the oyster shell of one’s mind to reveal the pearl within. It gives words to those feelings whose definitions are forever beyond the reach of verbal articulations.’

Dulcie’s conversations with Robert encourage him to think and be more expressive, while revealing all kinds of interesting anecdotes – the time she met D H Lawrence; memories of visiting Germany with her lover before the war. This is balanced by Robert’s experiences of the natural world, his encounters with deer and badgers as well as his thoughts about Dulcie. Nature is rendered vividly as summer wanes into autumn with all the colour and drama you could ask for, set against the shadow of an all-too-recent war.

I can imagine that this novel would make a lovely little film, and maybe that’s because of the way Benjamin Myers builds memorable settings and interesting characters. It’s a gentle read, taking its time to draw you in, but the writing is exquisite. You’ll want to pick up a poem or go for a walk in the countryside after this. Maybe eat something fresh out of the garden. It reminded me of those classics that evoke the English countryside as a foil against which human behaviour plays out – Thomas Hardy, L P Hartely and Laurie Lee, and probably D H Lawrence, spring to mind. As I said before it’s the perfect little book, with a perfect little score of five out of five from me.

Book Review: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

I’ve read a few books where lighthouses appear in the story, often in a metaphorical sense as an evocation of hope or constancy, or even desire. These ideas also appear in Emma Stonex’s novel The Lamplighters, but here the story follows the lives of lighthouse keepers and their families and the very real lighthouse which is the men’s home for a large part of their working year. Inspired by real events, the book takes us into the world of three lighthouse keepers in 1972, and what happens when their lighthouse is found abandoned, the keepers missing, but the door locked and bolted from inside.

You have to be certain kind of person to be in the lighthouse service. Principal Keeper, Arthur Black, likes the quiet and solitude of his eight-week stints on the remote lighthouse known as the Maiden. The service gives the men a cottage on the nearby Cornish coast, but he doesn’t seem to miss his wife, Helen, who waits for his return. He’s considered a good man, able and sound and obviously kindly, but have all his years in lighthouses taken their toll?

Postcards never finished; postcards never sent. I tear them up and drop them into the sea so I can watch them float away. In another life, a lucky one, I see the pieces washing onto shore. She’ll find them, gather them to her, put them back together. It will all make sense.

Assistant Keeper, Bill Walker, is from a family of lighthouse keepers and was never given the choice to be anything else. You can tell he’s had enough but then he’s almost at the end of his eight-week stint, so naturally he’s looking forward to his time on shore. At home with three young children, his wife Jenny finds the eight weeks the hardest, and fills her days filling the cake tins, and drinking.

The third keeper is the young Supernumerary Assistant Keeper, Vincent Bourne. He’s had a tough life, in and out of foster homes, and then in and out of prison. But when he meets Michelle, he determines to turn his life around and have the proper family he’d missed out on. The Service offers him a chance and when he’s made Assistant Keeper, he’ll get a cottage too. So while it might be easy to blame the mysterious disappearances on bad-lot Vinnie, he seems the least likely to lose it and do something rash.

The story flips to 1992, when an adventure-thriller writer revisits the events of twenty years before, planning to write a book and solve the puzzle. Told through the viewpoints of the three women left with no answers, but a financial to keep quiet, secrets start to emerge. The tension escalates, as the story switches back to the days leading up to the tragedy, as well as describing the sensitive relationships of the women on land. The ending is taut and you rush through the pages to find out what happened, in a small way comforted in the resolution for those left behind.

This is a masterful novel, written in elegant and at times poetic prose – maybe it’s hard to avoid if you are writing about the sea and the weighty themes we traditionally associate with lighthouses. The novel makes these themes all the more real but in new ways. It’s a psychological novel too, getting inside the heads of the men and their women, picking out their motives and triggers, their passions and resentments.

Emma Stonex has done her research well and the books she lists as inspiration are books that look well worth a read. I can’t help thinking that lighthouse keepers are forgotten heroes and want to know more. I’m going to stick my neck out and give The Lamplighters a rare five out five.