Arthur, Bill and Vince are the lighthouse keepers on The Maiden Rock, a remote lighthouse that rises from the sea off Land’s End. One night in 1972 they all go missing, leaving two clocks stopped at the same time, a log describing a storm that never happened, a meal set for two and the door locked from the inside. The case is never closed. Twenty years later a writer sets out to investigate what really happened, by interviewing those left behind and trying to piece together what evidence remains. The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is a beautifully evocative tale of loneliness, loss and misunderstanding.
Who hasn’t looked at a lighthouse from afar and been affected by the isolation, the romance, the noble concept of protecting those in peril on the sea, the metaphor of a bright beacon shining in the dark? Although today they are now all automated, back in the 70s they were still manned by real people doing long shifts of up to two months, living in cramped quarters, alone in all weathers and at all times of the day and night, seeing to the lighting of the lamps, living off very basic rations and in contact with the outside world by radio only.
Told in layered first person narratives by each main character in the story, we flit between 1972 and 1992. A picture gradually builds of the men and the wives they left behind. Arthur, the Principle Keeper – taciturn, orderly, interested in geology and the stars. His wife Helen – aloof, polite, unable to make friends easily. Bill and Jenny who live next door in the terraced houses allocated to the ‘service’: she the domesticated but unhappy wife and mother; he a dedicated man keen to prove himself to the world. And then ex-con and amateur poet Vince, starting a new life with his young wife Michelle.
As the narrative progresses and the women gradually reveal more of their stories to the writer, flashbacks to the fateful last few days on the lighthouse are told in letters and musings by the men who vanished. It emerges, of course, that all is not as it seemed. These women, overtaken by drudgery and pain, had kept so much silent.
What was the secret sorrow at the heart of the PK’s marriage? How did Bill’s childhood affect his choices as an adult? And was Vince’s criminal past destined to catch up with him? Even The Maiden herself – ‘a grey spike on a milk green sea’ – has a personality, the very image looking like she is holding onto something. The truth – which Dan the writer comments to Jenny ‘is theirs, and yours’- is that they are all haunted by something more than just their pasts, and the solitary life that they have chosen does things to a person’s mind that cannot be entirely understood.
Emma Stonex has been diligent in her research into the lives of actual lighthouse keepers, and the idea for the book itself grew out of a real unsolved mystery of three lighthouse keepers who disappeared from a remote rocklight on an island in the outer Hebrides in 1900. What she brings to this is a novelist’s understanding of the complications of human relationships, an eye for character and idiom, an atmospheric recreation of the horrors and wonders of a seascape, and a nuanced structure that keeps the reader guessing to the end.
It’s an incredible debut. And at the end, we realise that ‘answers’ are not necessarily the answer – what we need is acceptance, hope and peace, and that our humanity lies in putting in ‘as many lights as we can while we are here. Get them shining bright. Keep them shining when the dark comes in. This is why we strike a match, why we build lighthouses in the first place and any other thing you think, on a good day, might save a life.’
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is published by Picador, 386 pages.