Book Review: The Lamplighters  

By Emma Stonex

Published by Pan Macmillan

In 1900 three lighthouse keepers disappeared from a lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides. And that mystery is the inspiration for Emma Stonex’s oddly compelling and highly original novel set in 1972 and later.

Three men, Arthur Black, principal keeper, William “Bill” Walker, assistant keeper, and the much younger Vincent Bourne, subsidiary keeper, simply disappear from the lighthouse leaving a meal laid on the table. Is this a ghost story, a murder mystery or simply a tale of human relations and intrigue? It’s a long time before we find out as the story evolves through newspaper extracts, revelation of back stories and the activities of those who are left.

Meanwhile Stonex is very good at evoking life for three men each on a shift lasting several weeks in the cramped nine-storey lighthouse in the days when lighthouses were manned rather than mechanically operated. You can feel the treacherous grey sea lapping fiercely around them so that sometimes supplies can’t be delivered along with the tension of their living so closely together. Of course they work shifts and when off duty sleep in curved bunks or pursue solitary hobbies.

They can see the shore from the lighthouse where their wives and families live in accommodation provided by Trident House, the company which manages lighthouses for the purpose of this novel (a thinly veiled Trinity House). Stonex’s other great strength is her exploration of the complex relationships between the women both at the time of the three men’s disappearance and much later as they look back, still trying to make sense of what happened. They are very different from each other and there is a deal of misunderstanding and mistrust.

Every great novel enhances your general knowledge and I learned a huge amount from this one about the management of lighthouses in former times and the close-knit ambience of  lighthouse communities.