17th April, 2021

Review: The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex (Picador)

A mystery set by the sea? And even on a lighthouse? These two aspects of The Lamplighters piqued my curiosity quickly and I knew this was a novel I definitely needed to read as quickly as possible after it was published.

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 . . .

The Lamplighters was a novel that I savoured slowly. Even though the mystery surrounding the lighthouse keepers vanishing into thin air made me extremely curious as to what the heck had actually happened and even though the author tends to throw in little tidbits of information that keep you guessing (or drive you insane because you just want to KNOW), I tried to make the book last as long as possible. Why? It's simple. I simply loved how Stonex manages to contrast the tight and almost claustrophic inside of the lighthouse with the power and sublimity of the sea. For me, the setting of this novel is exactly what makes it so intriguing. By and by we learn about the lighthouse keepers' pasts, about their struggles, their trauma and their dreams. We also follow the women in their lives as they, twenty years later, still try to make sense of what has actually happened. And yet, the ocean and the Maiden Rock lighthouse are the true protagonists of Stonex's story. 

Compared to the magnificent and simultanously terrifying beauty of the sea, the human characters remain a bit colourless. Little misunderstandings, lies and animosities appear almost ridiculous to the reader compared to some of the greater but a little stereotypical traumas the characters have experienced. Interestingly enough, there is actually more going on in their minds than is actually happening which nicely ties in with the metaphor of an enclosed lighthouse space. In that respect we also find nods to Virginia Woolf's famous novel To the Lighthouse. The Lamplighters portrays a time and profession that has long gone but it does away with the common romantic notions and instead draws attention to the downsides of this job. The characters' mental struggles are also skilfully shown through the mostly monologic narrative that focuses on a different point of view in the individual chapters. Even if there is a conversation happening between two people, we often only get one voice while the other's speech remains a gap which has to be filled in by the reader. The self-centredness of the characters is perfectly illustrated through this technique, which howevers takes some getting used to.

Despite some of the clichés mentioned above, this was a fabulous read which I enjoyed a lot. Highly recommended!

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

© Copyright The Constant Reader

All texts and photographs are mine, unless indicated otherwise.