Published: 4th March 2021 Pan Macmillan (Picador)
I loved this book so much that I went to bed early two nights running so I could finish it uninterrupted. I was so drawn in by the isolation of this lighthouse, that it was just standing directly in the sea and no one could come on or off until the relief boat came. Inspired by true events, the story is set in two time frames. In one we learn that a writer is researching a book on a famous disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. In 1972, miles off the coast of Cornwall a relief boat arrives at the Maiden, to find the door locked from the inside, the clocks stopped and no sign of the Principle Keeper or his two assistants. He contacts the women left behind by these men: Helen, wife of the Principle Keeper, Arthur; Jenny, wife of Bill his deputy; Michelle, girlfriend of the new recruit Vince. They have all received money from Trident, the company who employ the keepers, but with that came a directive, not to talk about the events surrounding the mystery. At the time, Vince came under the most suspicion. New to the area and with a criminal past, he seems the likely candidate to have harmed the others. Yet, why would Arthur write of a huge storm in the log, when seas had been calm all week? What became of the small boat rumoured to have sailed near the Maiden? There were also whispers about a mechanic sent to carry out repairs at the Principle Keeper’s request. It’s hard, years later, to distinguish between rumour and truth. Will any of the women speak to the writer and will they finally solve the mystery of what happened to the men?
This felt like an intriguing mix of mystery and love story, with a hint of the supernatural. There was a real difference between the sections on land and those at sea. As we meet the women, there is a grounded reality about their stories and their lives. Whereas the sections out in the sea are surprising, although there’s routine in the keeping of a lighthouse, it still feels like an escape, cut off from the real world. As they look out surrounded by waves they could be in any time and the struggles of the world can’t reach them. The sea narrative has a disjointed feel at times, they shift and turn, we’re sometimes unsure what is reality and what is fantasy. The women’s recollections feel more based in fact, they’re relating their own history whereas the keepers seem firmly in their present- only reacting and dealing with what is in front of them. This shows the huge disparity in how these couples were living their lives back in 1972. I could really imagine that jolt of having the person you spend your life with leave for several weeks, then just as you’re used to their absence they return again. It made me think of military marriages that often flounder because of this. Just as the home has a routine, it’s disrupted by someone returning again, changing the dynamic and wanted to do things differently. I felt particularly for Jenny, who has children to cope with in this remote area with little support and I could see how resentment might build.
These have not been easy relationships and living with the uncertainty of what happened to their men has affected them differently. Helen has experienced so much loss, losing Arthur after losing her only child who drowned when he was a toddler. The sea has claimed everything she loved and while she is matter of fact in stating the men must be dead, her certainty is brittle and she hasn’t fully let go of the events at Maiden. Helen feels that even when Arthur was home, he wasn’t fully present. Something of him always stays out on the sea – in fact perhaps, it’s the only place he truly makes sense. The Maiden is always there, towering between them like a mistress. Arthur does love to be out there, but for reasons Helen hasn’t realised. There is a sense that this couple have stopped talking and just below the surface there are secrets, some that perhaps explain Jenny’s animosity toward her. Jenny can’t seem to accept that her husband Bill has gone and welcomes someone trying to find out the truth. There is a hatred of Helen that runs deep, but it takes some time to find out whether she has reason to resent her so much. Michelle has moved on and is now married with children. She is very pragmatic about her life choices, she knows she doesn’t love her husband as she loved Vince but it can work and they have a family. Although there were so many rumours, Michelle is adamant in her defence of her first love. Yes, he had committed a crime and had often mixed with the wrong people. She could believe the rumour of the mechanic, despite Trident claiming they didn’t send anyone. Perhaps this was Vince’s past catching up with him, dressed in a mechanic’s overalls?
I loved the descriptions of the sea, and how it was a character in its own right. Sometimes calm, deceptively so, until a sudden swell could catch you by surprise. There are storms where waves batter the tower almost all the way up to the light itself. The sea is capricious, relentless and must be respected. The little touches of the supernatural add to the puzzle and intrigue the reader. Arthur’s sighting of something glinting silver in the sea or the little sail boat that passes by. Bill’s strange story of seeing the same man twice as he’s driving along and has to stop for him to cross – somehow he knows this isn’t a lookalike, it is exactly the same man. Is there a link between this strange story and the mechanic who turns up and seems to know all about them? This is where I started to wonder what was real? I wasn’t sure whether one of the keepers was having a mental health crisis and we were privy to his inner thoughts and delusions. Bill also has a strange attachment to Helen and I wasn’t sure whether his affections were returned or whether he was obsessed. Just enough little creaks, bangs and noises about the place are also making Vince jumpy. Could the isolation have proved too much for him?
The author weaves an unsettling tale and I wasn’t sure we would ever know what really happened. I was surprised, but incredibly satisfied by the ending. I thought the depiction of complicated grief in all the women felt real and honest. The glimmer of hope for their future was very welcome. I was left though, with an eerie feeling and a sense that the lighthouse might still be holding some secrets. That perhaps if you sailed nearby on a clear day you might see a father and his small boy looking out to sea, together forever in this one place outside of time.
Meet The Author
Emma Stonex is a novelist who has written several books under a pseudonym. THE LAMPLIGHTERS is her debut under her own name and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Before becoming a writer, she worked as an editor at a major publishing house. She lives in the Southwest with her family.