Map of Blue Book Balloon

13 March 2021

#Review - The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

The Lamplighters
Emma Stonex
Pan Macmillan, 4 March 2021
Available as: HB, 368pp, e, audio
Source: advance e-copy
ISBN: 9781529047318 

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of The Lamplighters via NetGalley.

I know I'm not unique to have imagined, and wished for, the opportunity to live in a lighthouse. Alone, surrounded by the sea, in a cosy world of my own, with no-one to disturb me (and lots of books) - who wouldn't want that? 

Well, as this book suggests, that vision is rather based in privilege. Nice maybe (in the imagination) to spend those days alone, in a cosy, warm space, well fed, able perhaps to come an go. I'm, obviously, imagining a rather cosied-up lighthouse with all the comforts. It wouldn't be so pleasant if the accommodation is basic, the food tinned, with an essential but basically boring and repetitive job to do and, worst of all, if one is required to spend eight weeks in the tower (and longer if the weather's bad when changeover day comes).

Emma Stonex has I think captured the essence of that life for the lighthouse keepers she describes here. Three men - of course all the keepers would have been men - who disappear one night just after Christmas in 1972, leaving no clue as to what happened (or, if you prefer, too many clues, enough to make the whole thing a mystery). 

Arthur, the Principal Keeper. 

Bill, the reliable Assistant. 

Vince, the new boy, and with a troubled life behind him

Looking back on events twenty years later, Helen, Jenny and Michelle remember their lives with Arthur, Bill and Vince. A novelist, Dan Sharp, (who is present only as the women's audience: he is a shadowy figure seen only in the reactions of others) wants to investigate the whole mystery, interviewing the women and leading them to reflect on their lives before and after the disappearance. What secrets may emerge?

That's a very bald synopsis and frankly I struggle to sum up the themes of this complex, enchanting book. There is just so much here. The Lamplighters is one of those books that forms an irreducible image of itself, and I worry that my clumsy efforts to analyse, to discuss it may only give a wrong impression. That would be a shame because I want to persuade you to read this book. It comes at just the right time - so much of it is about separation, about bearing the apartness, the distance from one's family, from the wider world. Some chapters give the womens' accounts of this, of their loneliness in their little cottages within sight - when it's lit - of the Maiden light. Others give the mens' perspective. Both suffer, I think, in different ways: the women managing children and keeping up a facade of normal life, only to have their worlds overturned when their men come home. The men, enjoying a certain sense of camaraderie but also hobbled by a male reticence to open up. And all the time, watching each other, in case the strain becomes too much for one of the companions with whom they're trapped.

It's a pressure cooker atmosphere for both, and as the story unfolds we learn about all kinds of misunderstandings, suspected infidelities, desires and secrets. Everyone here has suffered losses, is running from, or denying, something: acts they've carried out, things that have been done to them, misfortunes that have affected them. The periodic separations endured by these families prevent these things from being digested, accepted and understood, feeding instead an atmosphere pf psychic claustrophobia, a darkness in which the strange can seem dangerously plausible. 

Stonex creates from this an, at times uncanny atmosphere where for whole scenes it's impossible to be sure whether what's being described is something we can assume really happened, is being dreamed or imagined or is an insidious mixture of all three. It is, I suspect, the sort of unreality to which isolation, stress, lack of sleep and monotony can easily give rise - perhaps one many of us have approached (in a lesser way) during the days of lockdown and covid. ('The effects of being quarantined are serious. It isn't a normal state for a person').  There is then something of the horror story in The Lamplighters, but delicately done and arising from the complex twists and secrets of the human mind.

But there is much more to this book than that. We also see the contrasting roles of men and women, the assumptions about how they will live and what they want. The three women, especially, are well drawn and deeply interesting: Helen, inheriting the status of her Principal Keeper husband ('she was Mrs PK, it was her obligation') but ill at ease with it. Jenny, who seems to live to nurture a grievance - but is there something darker behind that? And Michelle, rather different from the other two, not only younger but  a free spirit in the early 70s and the girlfriend, not the wife, of Vince. Michelle is determined to prevent Vince's memory being blackened but (the only one of the three now in another relationship) seems to be trapped with a controlling, suburban husband ('he didn't like her reading. Said it put fancy ideas in her head') from whom she has to hide her interest in the Maiden rock mystery. 

Against the women the men can seem, at times, like rather pallid creatures whose chief occupation on the lighthouse is the consumption of deeply unappealing food and prodigious quantities of tobacco (I mean it - the amount of smoking that goes on in this book, it's a wonder to me that anyone survives a week and I was rather grimly amused when in one desperate episode they run out). They mark their friendship by swearing a lot and seem to avoid each other as far as they can. But they, too, have their subtleties and their dark secrets.

As in any closed, dedicated community, lighthouse keeping has, it emerges, something of an ethos, common to the keepers themselves and their wives and girlfriends. It's partly a sense of duty, partly an idea of being alone together. 'I've had my light safe here' muses Arthur 'shining through the dark and I'll keep it shining'. He doesn't mean, or not only, the lighthouse lamp. There is an almost mystic sense of connection symbolised by that lamp, connection across years and across miles - and not always in a comfortable sense, we are told several times how unbearable to the women it is when they can see the beam of the lamp across miles of sea, knowing their men are at the other end, unable to communicate with them across that gulf.  There is also obsession here, actually scary levels of obsession, and of guilt.

This is the kind of book that hooks you at first with its juicy mystery - but once you get twenty or thirty pages in, you find other things to enjoy: the hauntedness of the lighthouse and the sea, the dance between the six main characters, the teasing revelations of their earlier lives and the different ways in which the women have, or have not, come to terms with their interrupted relationships. 

There is an answer here, in the end, to what happened, or a possible answer, but by the time we reach it, the mystery has almost dissolved into the wider story, and I found myself caring much more about Helen, Jenny and Michelle and about where they would go next and whether they would ever heal. 

A truly affecting book, with some beautiful writing ('melancholy sanded a nook in his heart', 'Big swell, bright day, grease the fog-jib and oil the lenses') and a booking I'd strongly urge you to read. 

For more information about The Lamplighters, see the publisher's website here.

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