Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
In this absorbing novel, Emma Stonex has created a suspenseful tale where several characters are overshadowed by The Maiden, a tower style lighthouse built perilously on rocks, miles from Lands End, Cornwall. Their story is based on the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers, from a light, miles off the wild Scottish west coast in 1900.
A tower is a lighthouse which cost lives to build in its rocky rugged surrounds. Foul weather often marooned men for lengthy periods. Savage storms lashed the structure. Waves over fifty feet were not uncommon.
Initially, like a camera, the story focuses on each character in turn. Arthur is the Principal Keeper and Bill and Vince share the duties. Interest shifts to the three wives, Helen, Jenny and Michelle. Each, it appears, has accepted their roles, even adjusted. The note at this stage is positive, even upbeat.
Interest is aroused with the question of what happened that year on December 30th, twenty years ago. This surfaces when a writer comes to the village to interview the three, now bereaved, women.
In the ensuing years, the mystery remains. It has gripped the nation and a number of possibilities, some fanciful and outrageous, has been posed.
The men vanished, the only entrance was locked from the inside, two clocks stopped at the same time and the table was set for two.
Gradually first impressions are replaced by more honest in-depth revelations. The women share their stories with the writer and, at the same time, vivid pictures of life in the lighthouse highlight the cracks in their lonely existences.
The relentless crashing of the ocean in the seeming endless storms impacts each man. Mentally, emotionally and psychologically, they are deeply affected.
Arthur, the longest serving of the three, begins to imagine his son Tommy, who drowned as a six-year-old, is close by. Strange apparitions torture him.
A dark undercurrent that sweeps between Arthur and Bill hovers closer to the surface.
Both men’s relationship with the younger Vince is marred by the knowledge of his criminal record.
Dramatic and disturbing is the appearance of Sid, supposedly a mechanic. Totally lacking empathy, he is crude, rude and provoking. He seems to know Bill’s deepest secrets. This strange interlude with Bill and Sid is peculiar. Bill’s self-control suggests that the obnoxious Sid is in fact a manifestation of his conscience.
In The Lamplighters, memory sustains the three men imprisoned in the Tower. The reader too, can more realistically gain a more visceral picture of each. So much more is revealed than by their limited rough exchanges day by day.
Helen’s referring to the lighthouse as being like a wild animal in the living room, sharply emphasises the menacing presence it held in the lives of the six.
Finally, there is a twist when the writer’s identity is learned. He and Helen look towards the lighthouse, no longer a threatening menace. Indeed, it is fully automated.
In a moving gesture, the pages of his manuscript which he has worked so hard to produce, are scattered by the wind over the landscape. A reminder that no one will ever know the true facts of the case.
Emma Stonex has offered one very convincing solution, a fine attempt. Many elements make it a truly memorable book. It is beautifully written, imaginative and complex.
She links the six characters in a masterly way. Their tale is heartbreakingly tragic, and haunts and is nearly drowned by the poetic descriptions of the ocean and its powers.
Thankfully it is a way of life no longer suffered by the courageous few whose arduous existence, as The Lamplighters so grippingly relates, once saved the lives of those who sailed in treacherous seas.
This book is, in its way, a tribute to them.
by Emma Stonex
Picador [Pan Macmillan]
ISBN 978 1529 06628 9