The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex – review

Published by Picador

Publication date – 4 March 2021

Source – review copy

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 . . .

Jim, Bill, and Vince are on shift together at the Maiden, a lighthouse assembled on a rocky outcrop miles from land. There they stay for weeks at a time, sleeping curled around the curved walls of the lighthouse, taking shifts ensuring the light is maintained, note the weather and keep the lighthouse spotless. They have learned or rather are more suited to life away from the mainland, to be controlled by the lamp and the sea. One day, when a boat arrives to take one of them back to land, the lighthouse is found empty, the door locked from the inside and the clocks stopped. Twenty years later an author is writing about the disappearances and the wives and girlfriend of the lighthouse keepers have to unearth the past.

The story alternates between the three women and back in time between the three lighthouse keepers. This works well, allowing the story to build in layers, slowly revealing long-held secrets, resentments and the truth about what happened all those years ago.

All of the characters have dimension. By that I mean there are qualities that are appealing and also characteristics that put them in a different light with the reader. They are all flawed, with insecurities that have led to a live half lived, obsessions, regrets and sorrow. What comes across the most is how the disappearance of the men has shaped the lives of the women left behind. Settling for second best, becoming a martyr to their feelings or living a life with one foot in the past.

The Lamplighters is at heart a novel about relationships. New exciting relationships, long established married lives and those who feel trapped by their decisions. It explores familial relationships, or rather what the lack of them can do to shape lives. It is also about how to live on, when those relationships no longer exist. The relationship between humans and nature is also explored. The lure of the sea, how it can go from threatening to calming in the blink of an eye.

The book has been described by some as a ghost story. It is perhaps a little, though it haunted by ghosts of those still living and the memory of those departed. There are no rattling chains and unearthly sightings. It is more there is an atmosphere of unease, a sense that the spray of the water and the waves crashing onto the rock are preparing to reveal what they know.

The Lamplighters is not just a mystery, though there is a mystery at the heart of it. The disappearance is easy to figure out, the what and the why and the who laid out for the reader at least to have a satisfactory conclusion.  The cause is often easy to figure out, it’s the effect that lingers longer.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. The Book's Whiskers says:

    This is a lovely review. The Lamplighters has been one of my favourite books this year.


    1. janetemson says:

      Thank you. Pleased to hear you loved the book 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t read much modern fiction, but but as this is about lighthouses I’m a bit tempted…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. janetemson says:

      It is set in the 1970s and 1990s so doesn’t feel present day if that makes sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Although I don’t read ghost stories very much, I do like those creepy stories that leave you feeling uneasy as you described, so this is very tempting! The setting sounds so well evoked too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. janetemson says:

      It’s not like a ghost story in the sense of phantoms and rattling chains. It’s not even scary. It’s more about the ghosts of regret or longing that can haunt someone, if that makes sense!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. crimeworm says:

      Another “to be read” on my teetering pile – your reviews are wanting me to get started on so many books! I remember the Flannan Isles story from primary school, and love the sound of this book from your review.


      1. janetemson says:

        I hope you like it when you get to it 🙂


  4. Just treated myself to a copy of this!


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