This book has been one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, because I loved the blurb of course, but also because I’ve had a lot of luck this year with fantastic books that have a lighthouse on the cover. The Lighthouse Witches was even darker than I expected and I enjoyed it immensely. In the late 1990s, artist Liv Stay finds herself homeless and without work so travels all the way up to Scotland and an island called Lòn Haven where a friend has recommended her to paint a mural. She travels to the coast, with her three daughters Saffy, Luna and Clover. There she meets Isla, caretaker of the bothy they’ll be staying in next door to the sea lashed lighthouse where she’ll be painting the mural. The mural is planned out on a large roll of paper and Liv is bemused to see a diagram of sorts, full of runic symbols she doesn’t understand. Getting this accurate in a circular building is her first challenge, and the second is to inject some of her own creativity in the design to make it beautiful. The girls are a bit shell-shocked to be brought to this remote and wild place, and there are certainly some unanswered questions as to why and how they ended up somewhere so remote and creepy. Liv carries a huge secret inside her, but the family are about to find out that Lòn Haven holds its share of secrets and ancient beliefs too, causing the whole family to disappear.
The story is told through different characters in three main time zones. Liv narrates the main section in the 1990s, then we meet her grown-up daughter Luna twenty years later, but we also go back into the history of the island and the witch trials of the 17th Century. The grown-up Luna is drawn back to the island when her sister Clover is found. However, to Luna’s shock, her contact Eilidh the social worker takes her to a little girl. Clover should be around thirty years old. Yet, Clover recognises her childhood toy and his name; she immediately squeezes Gianni the Giraffe like an old friend. Luna can’t understand why the social services haven’t noticed the anomaly in Clover’s date of birth, but her instinct is to protect her sister. So when asked, Luna fudges her date of birth and takes Clover away with her to the Air BNB she’s booked. At times, once they’ve settled, Luna does wonder if everything is okay with her sister. There’s the strange marking like a brand on her skin, which has four tiny numbers inscribed. There’s also a look she has, as if she isn’t present in her body and doesn’t recognise Luna. Over a couple of days she also displays some disturbed behaviour. Luna finds Gianni with his insides pulled out and his head cut off and then Clover floods the bathroom on purpose. Luna is desperately trying to find some sort of disease or syndrome that might have regressed her sister’s age. The only other explanation is a supernatural one and Luna isn’t sure she’s ready to accept the the local folklore she heard when she went missing all those years ago. However, she’s pregnant and alone with Clover in the middle of nowhere, so what if she isn’t her sister?
The author creates a brilliant atmosphere across all three time periods, starting with the name of the lighthouse, The Longing. Rather than full on horror, it’s a sense of the uncanny that starts to unsettle the reader. We all know that sense of rising tension when we feel so on edge, that anything would scare us. Here, it’s glimpsing a baby in the water that’s flooding the floor of the lighthouse, when it’s just a doll; a small child’s arm reaching out from behind Liv’s art materials; or opening a door to see your own double standing there. As we delve into the past and the history of The Longing, we are faced with the real-life horror of the 17th Century witch trials encouraged by King James, the first joint King of England and Scotland who ascended the throne after Elizabeth I died without an heir. Women with skills such as herbalism or midwifery could come under suspicion, but more usually local disputes and grudges led to women being branded a witch. In this case the local midwife, her friends and their daughters have all been accused and in matters like this the islanders stick to the rule ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. Accused women in this time period were often checked for the Devil’s mark – a mole, birthmark or blemish of any kind – had their hair shorn, were stripped, humiliated and then burned. The history of the island shows that a burning happened on the very rock, that now serves as a foundation to The Longing. I wondered how the old beliefs, in the fae or fairies, witches, and strange children called wildlings still held sway in the present day. In the 1990’s narrative there is still a definite undercurrent of ancient beliefs, with their followers having enough reach to influence both the police and the richest man on the island, owner of the bothy and lighthouse. Liv comes up against the reach of these believers when she reports seeing a small boy who looks like he’s been living wild. The police don’t want to know when she reports him missing, and it feels as if they view her as a nuisance, someone who doesn’t understand the island’s ancient way of life. When you visit Lòn Haven, as Luna does years later, there’s a sense of the ancient past existing alongside the present, as if time isn’t linear but looped upon itself.
I did get a little confused at times, especially with the elements of time being manipulated, through the cave known as the Witches Hide. There is old magic here. I was trying to understand the marks and numbers branded on Clover and others, and match them to the different time frames. In the end I gave up and decided to just go with it. I found this quote, in a letter from mother to daughter, very apt:
‘I’m not sure if I’ll make it, Luna. I’m not sure I’ll be able to hang on long enough to see you one last time. I’m going to try. But if not, if I slip away before I get the chance to hold you again, I wanted to write down the story of what really happened on Lòn Haven. As you’ll see, Cause and Effect in this tale do not fit easily together. The pieces are odd and mis-shaped because truth is messy and porous’.
I enjoyed the ending, despite feeling it was untidy. I thought it was a great story of women, and how their power and position changes over time. It also has a lot to say about mothers and daughters, how they communicate and the stories they tell each other to help navigate a world that can be set against women. I felt so much for Saffy, a very confused 15 year old who, in the midst of all the supernatural activity, is dealing with the usual teenage angst. Unsure of herself and this new place, she is lured into sexual activity and sending explicit pictures to one of the local boys. This is a girl who desperately needs her Mum, and isn’t getting any support or advice. There’s one occasion where Liv honestly has no idea where Saffy’s been for the last 24 hours. I wanted to give this girl a massive cuddle and help her set boundaries that she’s comfortable with instead of being coerced. The author mixes the present day perfectly with ancient folklore, supernatural happenings, and time travel, which is not an easy feat. Not to mention the depth of historical research that underpins the more fantastical elements. So, it seems my attraction to books with lighthouses on the cover, has paid off once again.
Meet The Author
C J Cooke (Carolyn Jess-Cooke) lives in Glasgow with her husband and four children. C J Cooke’s works have been published in 23 languages and have won many awards. She holds a PhD in Literature from the Queen’s University of Belfast and is currently Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where she researches creative writing interventions for mental health. Two of her books are currently optioned for film. Visit http://www.cjcookeauthor.com