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.