Book Review: The Lamplighters, by Emma Stonex

Three lighthouse keepers disappear from the isolated rock off Land’s End. What happened to them? Murder? Suicide? Or an accident? Emma Stonex’s mystery about the trio of lamplighters from the isolated Maiden Rock and their respective domestic lives promises much but only delivers the reasons why nobody should apply to be a lighthouse keeper. Not that you can anymore.

Since the implementation by the UK’s Coast Guard of the Lighthouse Automation and Modernization Program all lighthouse keepers have been replaced by automatic lighting systems so nobody should feel the isolation and loneliness of life on in one or the irritation with sharing the tower with two other people. Set in 1972 the story is a warning about sharing a space not much larger than a prison with the windows closed and cigarette smoke and sea salt damp pervading all within.

The story was inspired by the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the lannan Isles Lighthouse, off the coast of the Outer Hebrides in 1900. It is the general opinion that all three were swept to their deaths in a storm as each tried to save each other after one of them fell or was blown into the churning seas.

Emma Lomax cloaks the slow burn story that jumps back and forth in time with a supernatural element as she layers on the background to each of the doomed trio’s lives. The strange Silver Man and a ghost like appearance of a gent walking across the road from the 1930s. And there’s some strange sounds in the lighthouse that can’t be explained, but for me the supernatural overtones took away the prosaic nature of the day to day lives of all those involved and all those 1970s references which lit up the narrative like toasting slices of white Mother’s Pride bread, Neil Young on the Sony and tinned Heinz ravioli. The conversations between the men with their clipped sentences and barely concealed irritation with each other along with the joshing and joking and good deal of swearing brought home the claustrophobia of life on the grimy tower and life back home.

There’s Helen married to Arthur, Jenny’s domestic life with Bill and Michelle who is Vince’s partner – and then there’s the writer Dan Sharp trying to dig up the true story 20 years later. Hints are dropped here and there, an anniversary of the disappearance described and the hostility of the women to the media left to wonder what really happened.

Harry Mottram

Member of the Axbridge Four Seasons Book Club

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