Thursday, 4 March 2021

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex

Far out to sea off the Cornish coast, the Maiden lighthouse rises 50 metres above the waves; a tribute to Victorian engineering, and home to three men - principal keeper, Arthur Black, assistant keeper Bill Walker, and relative new-comer the supernumerary assistant Vince Bourne.

In December 1972 those men disappeared. The entrance door was bolted from the inside. The clocks stopped at quarter to nine. The table laid for two places. Investigators from Trident House can find no explanation for the event.

Twenty years later, Dan Sharp, a writer of maritime adventure novels, approaches the women left behind. Arthur's wife Helen has tried to accept that the men must have been washed out to sea by a freak wave - the most logical of the various explanations, she believes. Jenny, Bill's wife, refuses to believe any of the theories she's heard, insisting that somehow the men must still be alive. Younger than the other women, Vince's girlfriend Michelle is the only one who's tried to move on, marrying and having children with a man who'll never quite compare to Vince. Talking to Sharp brings back memories the women would rather forget, but maybe this way the past can eventually be laid to rest.

Inspired by the disappearance of three keepers from Scottish lighthouse in 1900, this stunning novel from Emma Stonex is a classic closed-room mystery, and an exploration of the lives of keepers and their wives -  love that keeps them together, the independent temperament needed by both, the strains that long separations put on a relationship. And on almost every page, there's the sea - shimmering on a summer's day, raging in storms, calm under a full moon - and the Maiden lighthouse, almost a character in herself, standing firm through the worst weather, forming a third party in any relationship, and through loneliness and monotony ultimately twisting the men's minds. 

It is a brilliant book, which had me engrossed from the first page! It has everything I want from a mystery - characters that feel like real people, lots of atmosphere, a satisfying ending, neither too prosaic nor too supernatural. 
The Maiden has cast her spell over me too. There's something quite extraordinary about a man-made structure standing alone at sea. A remote island has a certain fascination but with a tower lighthouse there's no surrounding ground - the tower sits solitary above the waves. I've seen them plenty of times off the coast but never really thought about them. Now Emma Stonex has really sparked something in me - a desire to run away to a lighthouse, to feel the waves crash over it and the building shake, but still but sheltered from the elements - that's excellent writing!


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