The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Have you ever held a shell to your ear and listened for the relentless roar of a distant ocean? Your romantic side can’t help but be will be captivated by this simple moment of impossible magic … The Lamplighters is that shell.

Compulsive, taut, and unforgettable. The Lamplighters is that rare book which is as exquisitely written as it is page-turning. I’m already telling everyone I know to read it.
Lucy Clarke, author of The Sea Sisters

what it says on the cover …

They say we’ll never know what happened to those men. They say the sea keeps its secrets . . .

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 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 by Emma Stonex

PUBLISHED: 4th March 2021
SHELF: historical fiction | mystery
AUTHOR: Emma Stonex
FORMATS: Hardback | Audiobook | Kindle

‘Jory knows loud seas and silent seas, heaving seas and mirror seas, seas where your boat feels like the last blink of humankind on a roll so determined and angry that you believe in what you don’t believe in, such as the sea being halfway between heaven and hell, or whatever lies up there and whatever lurks down deep.

my review

The Lamplighters is, at its heart, a deeply human story of love, loss, and resilience … but it’s been wrapped in a captivating mystery inspired by the real-life events of the remote Hebridean, Eilean Mòr, rock light in 1900. In a world rich in folklore, superstition and legend its the mundane realities of relationships, friendships and kinships that bewitch and compel the reader.  Yes, there are touches of the unknown, the otherworldly, and the ethereal, but it’s the truly unique way of life that shines out of this novel.  The steadfast routine and disciplined lifestyle that appears almost military.  The protracted periods of aloneness for husbands and wives.  The writers delightfully woven details about lighthouse living that underscore the functional, utilitarian roles these vulnerable, living-breathing individuals are confined within, ashore and at sea.

Revealed over two timelines, the plot follows the ill-fated shift of three lighthouse keepers stationed at the Maiden Light Tower, fifteen nautical miles out to sea.  It’s a shift none of the men will return from, but even before it takes their lives, it’ll take so much from them.  Arthur Black, Bill Walker, and Vince Bourne are the men responsible for the 1972 story telling; inviting the reader into an alien, isolated world. 

Before the author takes us into the tower, it’s Jory, the relief boatman, who provides the account of arriving at the abandoned lighthouse.  It’s just two chapters but they are fraught peril and melancholy.  The cauldron-like sea.  The hostile, secretive face of a tower devoid of presence.  The baleful echo of birds that mock and warn.  And the subsequent twelve-man team sent by Trident House to search every perfectly polished, fastidiously swept, meticulously tidy inch of the tower’s ten vertiginous storeys.  

Through the eyes of these three men, and the heart-achingly tender writing of the author, I glimpsed a life that’s both extraordinary and ordinary.  It’s a life of structure and schedules, one that’s both lonely and crowded. It’s a life of two lives that demands a very particular type of character, and which has the power to crush a marriage by sheer absence.  There’s no room for the whimsy and folklore that perpetuates on the land.  Yet, given time that can change – and time is something these men are sticklers for, and slaves to.  

I was struck by the notion that all three men viewed the tower – that inescapable, sea-bound monolith – as an escape.  For Arthur, it was as form of self imposed exile from his guilt and grief, whilst being as close as possible to its source.  For Bill it was a hideaway from a stifling marriage that can’t hold his meandering affections.  And for Vince it was an escape from his criminal past … and from a man hell-bent on revenge.  But as the mens’ chapters progress, it becomes clear that the dangers lurking within can often be greater than than those outside. 

The sea and the tower are the only characters in the book who don’t tell their own stories, and yet they are as intrinsic to the plot as the men and women themselves.   The mood of the book is amplified by the sea’s fickle cruelties and benevolence, by its colours and textures, by the shapes and forms that shimmer sometimes beneath the surface and sometimes atop.  In contrast, the men embrace the Maiden as a bastion of surety and safety from the shapeshifting waters as well as the insecurities of life on land.  But to the wives the tower is a watchful, possessive presence that swallows up men and secrets; something to be distrusted whilst placing every ounce of your trust in it to protect their men against the sly hostilities of the sea and the weather.

Like viewing the horizon through a back-to-front telescope, Helen and Jenny – Arthur and Bill’s wives – give a retrospective view of what happened twenty years ago.  Some events remain brutally vivid whilst others have had their harsh edges sloughed away over time, hazy like sea glass.  In their own ways they’ve tried to make peace with it, but there’s no mistaking that a part of them both is suspended, paused at that day in ’72.  The fathom-deep distance between knowing and believing continues to take a toll on them; one Helen deals with through logic and acceptance, whilst Jenny flounders in a more spiritual denial.  Vince’s girlfriend, just nineteen at the time, also contributes to this retrospective, and although her relationship was young and new, the effect on her has been just as profound.  

I quickly became very deeply invested in the lives of these women.  Their stories are told primarily in the form of monologues as they convey their accounts of those events to the writer, Dan Sharpe.  I found myself holding my breath as, little by little, they revealed what they know and what they don’t know, what they did or didn’t do, their assumptions and their outlook, their pause and their presence.  There have been secrets on all sides.  Some incite pity, whilst others are laden with shame and many with guilt. Some punch the air out of the room leaving you momentarily not knowing which way is up.  Little by little, seemingly inconsequential recollections and details swell in their magnitude as the stories flit between land and sea, quietly increasing the tension to the point where I’d realise I was gripping the book unnecessarily tightly.

The three voices of these women are as distinctive as their outlooks, their lives, and their ages – Helen’s no-nonsense bluntness is rich with compassion, but not at all sentimental, whilst Jenny is flighty, emotional and erring on the side of unreliable.  Michelle is more hesitant to tell her story, afraid of upsetting her husband, and beholden to the thinly veiled threats from Trident House against speaking publicly.  It’s Dan Sharpe’s investigation that finally convinces the young mother to speak out, to set the record straight for the man whose criminal past provided a convenient narrative for the official line.

So how is it that these three men went missing from an impregnable lighthouse, fifteen nautical miles out to sea?  Why are all the clocks stopped at 8:45?  Why was the table in the kitchen set only for two?  And why was the slab-steel door bolted from the inside? No sign of struggle.  No distress calls.  No authorised boat landings? Well, I’m clearly not going to tell you any of that … you need to read the book, and I don’t do spoilers!  But it’s these little puzzles that shroud the human story in its foggy mystery, beautifully striking a balance between the mortal and the ephemeral.  They’re dangled in front of us from the very start of the book, and it’s not until the fateful, final chapters of 1972 that their dreadful, opportunistic truth is revealed.

Oh that ending! The final few chapters of 1972, and 1992 were genuinely magnificent. Had this been a theatre production or a film I would have giddily leapt up for a standing ovation and some very loud cheering.  The twists and disclosures are both sublime and heart-breaking, unravelling the men and the mystery with a featherlight, fatalistic touch.  But for me, the real charm was the poignant promise of hope and forgiveness; those deeply human traits that can save a floundering soul.

The Lamplighters has been a thrilling book to read; a genuine pleasure.  The writing glides effortlessly from the poetic to the testimonial, from one distinctive voice to another, from the mundane to the poignant.   It’s one of those books you devour, greedily feasting on the abundantly rich details, willingly surrendering yourself to the hypnotic prose, all the while delaying that moment when you turn the final page and the spell breaks.  Nobody will be safe from me and my evangelical recommendation of this wonderful book.

my rating

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Thank you to the publishers, Picador (PanMacmillan) for sending me an advance copy of The Lamplighters in return for an honest review, and also NetGalley for approving my request for a digital copy, on the same day the postman arrived! There’s no such thing as too many books!

emma stonex

Emma Stonex author

Emma Stonex was born in 1983 and grew up in Northamptonshire. After working in publishing for several years, she quite to pursue her dream of writing fiction. The Lamplighters left harbour after a lifelong passion for lighthouses and everything to do with the sea. She lives in the SouthWest with her family.

There’s something about lighthouses, isn’t there? Not the red-and-white striped ones on a pretty spot on the headland – they look friendly enough – or the wooden miniatures you find on bathroom light pulls. I’m talking about the great, majestic sea towers – those giant, austere, briny chunks of granite set miles off-shore, built to oppose crashing waves and storm winds, domineering and isolated, melancholy and magnificent. What did it take for a man to live inside those towers, and what did it take away from him?

In The Lamplighters, I’ve hoped to capture as authentic a view of lighthouse life as I possibly can. Not the romanticised idea I used to have but a stab at how it might really have been. I want my characters to tell you their story, not me. Through the memoirs, interviews and autobiographies I’ve read, it’s the deep insight and humanity manifested in the voices of ordinary people that captivates me most.

#TheLamplighters | @StonexEmma | @picadorbooks | #NetGalley
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11 thoughts on “The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

  1. I don’t really read mystery or historical fiction books, but this sounds really interesting. Can I just say… I just discovered your blog and your reviewing style is so good and captivating and beautiful I’m pretty sure you could sell me the back of a shampoo bottle as a new favorite read.

    Liked by 1 person

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