More New Books for the Must Read List

A bumper crop of great new books seem to be arriving in bookshops this year. Here’s a few that caught my eye.

A Tidy Ending by Joanna Cannon
Oh, joy! A new book from the author who brought us The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Three Things About Elsie. ‘There’s something nasty lurking behind the net curtains on Cavendish Lane’. Linda escaped ‘dark events’ of her Welsh childhood, but now life seems a bit tame; married to Terry, fish fingers for tea. Only Terry is often late home, while girls are going missing in the neighbourhood. Should Linda be worried? You can expect Cannon’s trademark dark humour, an original plot plus a twist. I can’t wait. This one’s out in May.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler
This is the author who brought us We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which won a Booker Prize nomination and which really tugged at the heartstrings. There is only one person who springs to mind when I hear the name Booth – the John Wilkes Booth who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Fowler’s new novel explores the backstory – the upbringing that lead Booth to make the decision that was to go down in the history books. ‘Booth is a riveting novel, focused on the very things that bind, and break, a family’ – says the blurb. The paperback came out last week.

One Day I Shall Astonish the World by Nina Stibbe
And now for something completely different. Nina Stibbe is the author of the comic Lizzie Vogel trilogy that kicked off with Man at the Helm. Stibbe’s letters home to her sister when she was a nanny became Love, Nina: Dispatches from Family Life and then a charmingly quirky TV series. The new stand-alone novel promises a funny but life-affirming story about friendship and the paths it takes through the course of a lifetime. This book’s due out next month.

I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons
And yes, there is only one Mona Lisa, and this book is about that Mona Lisa. The blurb says it’s a ‘deliciously vivid, compulsive and illuminating story about the lost and forgotten women throughout history’. The story begins with the painting sitting around in Leonardo’s studio and where it ends up in the centuries that follow. Solomons can be relied on to write a compelling story and does her research. The Gallery of Vanished Husbands is another book that takes a look at the art world and which I can highly recommend. I, Mona Lisa was recently released in paperback.

Chorus by Rebecca Kauffman
I loved the simple, honest storytelling of The Gunners, a story about a group of friends who separately feel the burden of guilt for something that happened to them as children. Chorus is a story about a family, the seven Shaw siblings, and two life-altering events, what divides them and what brings them ultimately back to each other. Kauffman has been compared to Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro, and I’m sure Chorus will be worth picking up. The hardcover is already out; the e-book due in July.

The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Matting
If you haven’t read The Bell in the Lake yet, it’s time to get a move on as the second book in the trilogy will now be hitting the shelves. The setting sweeps us back to 1903 and a remote Norwegian community, home to solitary Jehans. Separated from his family he lives off what he can catch. When he kills a massive reindeer he meets an enigmatic hunter. There’s a mysterious tapestry woven by conjoined twins and a Pastor seeking redemption as a new age dawns. The blurb says this is ‘a grand and thrilling novel about what it takes to live in and embrace a new era.’ It’s sure to be a powerful and compelling read from a terrific storyteller.

Book Review: Trio by William Boyd

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I stepped into the world of Boyd’s latest novel, Trio. One thing I might have guessed is that its three main characters will be put to the test. Set in Brighton in 1968, the story centres on the making of a film with a ridiculous title. There’s remarkably little glamour as we’re taken behind the scenes – Brighton isn’t exactly Hollywood. The narrative switches between each of three main characters who are connected with the film.

Talbot Kidd, in his sixties, is the reserved, genial film producer who following the recent law reform decriminalising homosexual relations, is wondering about his own sexuality. But everyone keeps coming to him with their problems – film stock is going missing, the leading actress won’t work with the couple of acting hacks hired to play her mother and father and could it be true that his business partner is fleecing him? And then there’s that blasted song he hears everywhere he goes about the park with the cake left out in the rain, the sweet green icing flowing down … you know the one.

The leading actress, lovely Anny Viklund, is an up-and-coming American star with a poor taste in men. Her current boyfriend is a French freedom-fighter philosopher but before that she was married to an anarchist-terrorist and now the FBI want to talk to her. Luckily her co-star Troy offers easy, uncomplicated sex, and she’s got a stash of uppers and downers to keep her on an even keel. But she can’t help wondering why she has no control over her own life.

The third narrator, Elfrida Wing, is married to Talbot’s director, Reggie Tipton, a serial philanderer suddenly requesting everyone to call him Rodrigo. Elfrida is a famous novelist who hasn’t written a book for ten years, and passes her days as an accomplished secret alcoholic. It doesn’t help that the literary world described her as the new Virginia Woolf, an author she feels she has little in common with. When she comes up with the idea of writing a novel about the last day in Virginia Woolf’s life, she’s suddenly on fire again. But can she get on top of her drinking?

…and she soon stood on the high embankment looking down on the slow-moving stream, wondering if this were perhaps the actual point where Virginia had filled her coat pocket with a heavy stone and then waded in. Where had she learned that fact about the stone? She searched her memory. That’s right: Enid Bagnold had told her at a party years ago.

Boyd explores each of these characters’ flaws, foibles and secrets, yet I found each of them oddly likeable. He captures them at a time of crisis in their lives and keeps pouring on the pressure. This makes the story gallop along together with the lengths each of them go to maintain their secrets. Bubbling underneath is a gentle wry humour, particularly with Talbot and Elfrida, a kind of world-weariness English characters sometimes have, as if they are on the outside of themselves looking in.

Of course, Boyd is happy to throw barbs at the self-important figures that people the film and literary worlds. There’s also the frivolity of life in Britain in 1968 while across the channel the student riots were on the go and political change in the air. Name dropping of well-known writers and entertainers adds to the fun. But there are serious issues that each character has to struggle with, making this an amusing but also a very satisfying novel. But with William Boyd I wouldn’t have expected anything less. A four and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: On Hampstead Heath by Marika Cobbold

Marika Cobbald’s new book On Hampstead Heath is a witty comment on our times, a kind of comedy of errors, with an unlikely heroine at its heart. Thorn Marsh is a news editor, a passionate believer in the role of the news media to uncover the truth and to keep the public well-informed. At forty-four, her career is everything, but when her paper is taken over by a media conglomerate she is shifted from the news desk to the midweek supplement to write The Bright Side. A prickly, curmudgeonly individual, she is the last person to write happy, inspiring stories.

Along with Thorn, there’s a bunch of quirky characters to enjoy. Nancy, Thorn’s mother who never loved but she has her reasons; Mira, Thorn’s new editor, who gives Thorn a good run for her money when it comes to dry one-liners; Lottie, Thorn’s neighbour, a Holocaust survivor and secret dope smoker and who is more like a mother figure than Nancy; Lottie’s niece, Jemima, disapproving and disappointed.

She turned an accusing eye on me. ‘The media have a great deal to answer for in all of this, affording celebrity status to people whose main contribution to society is putting their heads in a tank of maggots. My Year Fives thought Florence Nightingale was a contestant on Love Island.’

‘I only recently found out that a Kardashian isn’t a rifle,’ Lottie said, and finished her gin.

Desperation and alcohol lead Thorn to make up a story using a photo snapped on Hampstead Heath curtesy of her still friendly ex-husband, Nick.  Suddenly the world is sharing and retweeting her story about The Angel of the Heath, a flame haired apparition on the Viaduct Bridge, who had recently turned Thorn’s head rescuing her neighbour’s dog.

Lies pile up on top of lies as Thorn digs a hole from which it seems impossible to extricate herself. She has only herself to blame, and pours out her story to Nick and Lottie. She learns the hard way that getting the best story isn’t the only thing in life.

While there’s a good deal of desperation, Thorn is such a likeably difficult character and a dry, dark humour bubbles through every sentence. Thorn grows from someone who only lived for her job to someone who learns to love not only others but herself. But it’s never treacly or too serious and the ending is superb.

I loved On Hampstead Heath, but then I’ve always really enjoyed Cobbold’s books. But it has been a long stretch between the new book and her last one – ten years in fact. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long for her next novel. On Hampstead Heath gets a four and a half out of five from me.

New Books for the Must-Read Pile

Here are the books I can’t wait to get my hands on in the coming weeks.

Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale
One of my favourite authors, Gale is such an empathetic writer who also captures the little details that create such interesting and well-rounded characters. Throw in a decent helping of humour and you’ve got the perfect novel in my book. Here, the mother’s boy of the title is Charles, the son of two people caught up in World War I, a war that ultimately takes his father. The relationship of the boy and mother is a key part of the story. Charles appears to have an exceptionally gifted mind, but that’s not all he has to deal with as another war looms. I loved Gale’s historical novel, A Town Called Winter and this one has already had some glowing reviews..

The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett
I really enjoyed The Appeal, an original and beguiling mystery novel which came out last year. Clearly this is an author with a terrific imagination and the new book looks similarly intriguing. We’ve got mysterious annotations in a children’s book by a disgraced author that could be a secret code. There’s a forty-year-old disappearance and the ex-con who connects the two and who is determined to solve the mystery – only there’s something that he can’t quite remember. What can it all mean? Definitely I’ll have to read on to find out.

The Slowworm’s Song by Andrew Miller
Miller writes such a variety of books including historical novels, contemporary fiction, and a huge variety of settings. They don’t come along all that often, but they’re always worth waiting for. Here we’ve got a recovering alcoholic trying to rebuild his life in Somerset and in particular his relationship with his daughter. He’s an ex-soldier and his story involves atrocities that happened in Northern Ireland and an enquiry that threatens his future with her. Miller’s last book was At Last We Shall Be Entirely Free, which won the Highland Prize, so I will be keen to read this one when it comes out in March.

The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths
It wouldn’t be a reading year without a new Ruth Galloway novel. If you haven’t discovered this series you have treats in store, particularly if you like atmospheric and witty mysteries with a dash of romance. Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk and the new book has her chum, DCI Nelson, looking for a killer when a Covid lockdown hits. I enjoy the characters in this series so much – Ruth’s matter-of-fact intelligence and Nelson’s blunt Yorkshire demeanour are always a delight. Throw in an archaeological setting and some twisty plotting and you have the perfect mystery read.

French Braid by Anne Tyler
Mercy Garrett is determined to eliminate clutter from her life, gradually moving into her studio now that her kids are grown up. But the clutter of family life and all the related memories are hard to ignore, particularly one holiday in 1959 that has generated ongoing repercussions for the Garretts. Sounds like we’re in classic Anne Tyler territory here: the people and random events that create a family history, told with humour and kindness. I’m always in my happy place with Tyler and can’t wait to see this one when it comes out in March.

Violeta by Isabel Allende
I so loved Allende’s last book, A Long Petal of the Sea, my first ever Allende, having avoided her for years thinking she only wrote magic realism. Obviously I’ve since had to revise my understanding. Violeta lives through the major events of the twentieth century – kicking off with the Spanish flu, the disastrous effects of the Great Depression, and a world war to name but three. What promises to make the book so appealing is the character of Violeta, who according to the blurb is passionate, determined and blessed with a sense of humour. I’m sure I’m going to love this one.

Book Review: Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller – an atmospheric and psychological story set in rural Wiltshire

I’ve had my eye out for this book ever since it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Unsettled Ground is the story of twins, Jeanie and Julius Seeder, who at fifty-one are still living at home with their mother, Dot, when she suddenly dies. All at once they have to figure out what to do, how to manage. Dot obviously took care of the family finances, but the cake tin that stored all their cash, from Julius’s odd jobbing and the women’s piecemeal market gardening, is virtually empty. Their electricity has been disconnected because of unpaid bills, then Jeanie discovers even more debts, to say nothing of the funeral costs.

Unfinished schooling, a basic, almost off-the-grid lifestyle and a lack of real-world experience mean the twins struggle to figure out how to make ends meet or get the help they need. Jeanie is barely literate, while Julius was traumatised when his father was killed in a farming accident, which means he can’t travel by car without motion sickness. Bridget, their mother’s old friend grudgingly drives Jeanie to appointments while pouring out unwanted advice. When their landlord’s wife issues an eviction notice unless arrears in rent of thousands of pounds are paid off, things are desperate indeed.

The plot pulls you in from the start as curve-ball after curve-ball are lobbed the twins’ way. You read on hoping they make a break from the past to find some happiness. Or, at 51, is it too late? Julius has always resented the need to stay, his mother, Dot, using Jeanie’s fragile health to keep him around. Dot had always felt that making music, gardening and living off the land were all that anybody needed, creating a small family sanctuary. But all it does is fill the twins with mistrust towards the agencies that might help them and the bullying they received at school casts a long shadow.

Told from Jeanie and Julius’s point of view, you have immense sympathy for these characters, while getting a taste of what it’s like to live in a small, insular community that isn’t always kind. And at the heart of it all are one or two family secrets that will overturn everyone’s assumptions. It’s an interesting psychological study of maternal love, guilt and fear inspired by ignorance. The setting of rural Wiltshire during a cold snap in spring is an evocative background – you get the sense of nature in all its glory, ready to invade, to rot and overrun.

It’s a bit like there are two sides to everything here – the good and the bad: the good side of mothering and the dark turn it can take; of neighbours, of nature and of love. It’s a powerful story that gives you lots to think about as well as a cracking good read, with more than a hint of the old adage: be careful what you wish for. The saving grace for the twins is music, peppering the story with old folk songs that Dot has passed on to her children. Claire Fuller used a playlist while writing the book which she describes here on her website. This is my first novel by Claire Fuller, and I am sure it won’t be my last. Unsettled Ground earns a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

This novel is a very intimate look at someone’s mental illness, which could in itself drive the reader into a depressed state if it weren’t for the scintillating prose which is a times laugh-out-loud funny. Martha Friel is turning forty at the beginning of the book, her marriage crumbling around her, as she looks back at her life to pinpoint the moments of significance to try and make sense of it all.

She is the child of eccentric parents. Her mother is a sculptor of minor significance who drinks a lot and drives her father, a poet who cannot quite bring himself to publish a long awaited collection, to leave them. You could say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when you look at Martha and her mother, who is difficult and at times cruel. But her father always returns, shutting himself away in his study among his books and poetic thoughts. Martha has a sister, Ingrid, who manages to lead a more balanced life, marrying Hamish and producing unplanned-for children with alarming regularity.

Then there is Aunt Winsome and Uncle Rowland who live in Belgravia and have funded Martha’s parents’ house and the girls’ schooling because being an unpublished poet and a sculptor of minor significance is no way to support a family. There are cousins, Nicholas, Oliver and Jessamine, as well as Oliver’s friend Patrick who’s father lives in Hong Kong and who has nowhere else to go at Christmas. As well as the closeness between the two sisters, much of the story is that of Patrick and Martha’s relationship.

That is what life was, and how it continued for three years after that. The ratios changing on their own, broken, completely fine, a holiday, a leaking pipe, new sheets, happy birthday, a technician between nine and three, a bird flew into the window, I want to die, please, I can’t breathe, I think it’s a lunch thing, I love you, I can’t do this any more, both of us thinking it would be like this forever.

Martha’s terrible rages, her problems with sounding normal at work or at parties, her unreliability, her snarky remarks, make her difficult to get on with and yet she inspires great affection from those who make the effort. She’s smart and shows odd moments of empathy.

The reason I had gone to London was for Peregrine’s funeral.
He had fallen down the central staircase at the Wallace Collection and died when he struck his head on a marble newel post at the bottom. One of his daughters gave the eulogy and looked earnest when she said it was exactly how he would have wanted to go. I wept, realising how much I loved him, that he was my truest friend, and that his daughter was right. If it hadn’t been him, Peregrine would have been acutely jealous of anyone who got to die dramatically, in public, surrounded by gilt furniture.

And while we get to see what Martha’s unspecified condition looks like, and the difficulties of getting appropriate medical help, the novel also gives thought to what makes people happy, the simple things often that people take for granted. Maybe it’s only when life is at its darkest, that you get to really understand this. I loved the characters in particular. Martha’s family are individually either odd or difficult, but they are all interesting and have their redeeming points. Patrick has his own sorrows – his lack of family, his struggles with his problematic love for Martha.

Meg Mason writes with such flair and understanding I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed Sorrow and Bliss. It is one of those funny/sad books, which can be entertaining and profound in equal measure. Mason is a New Zealand born author who lives in Sydney and this is her first book published in Britain. It is easily one my favourite reads for the year and really deserves its five out five from me.

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: 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 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.