- Book: The Lamplighters
- Location: Cornwall
- Author: Emma Stonex
This is a debut and a very fine one it is too! The novel has been inspired by the story from Scotland of 3 men who simply vanished from the remote Flannan Isles (Outer Hebrides) lighthouse in the early 20th Century. The location and some of the details are transferred from Scotland to the coast of Cornwall and updated to two more recent time frames, to wit 1972 and 1992.
One of the amazing elements of this novel is the sense of cloying setting. Three men work shifts, lighting the light for the dark hours atop a 100 foot tower. The claustrophobia of living in this narrow tower is really brought to the fore; outside the roiling, cresting waves batter the edifice and the tiny rock on which it is set. Boats bring relief keepers and supplies and have to choose their arrival day carefully according to weather conditions, and then negotiate the precarious landing. The weather is all pervasive in this story, logs are kept of weather conditions and the capricious nature of the water is a 24 hour factor – essentially, it is about survival.
The conditions of living on a lighthouse for shifts of around 40 days will inevitably suit only certain individuals. The bedroom is built so if faces the shore and looks out to the families left behind on the mainland. The dwelling is tight, there is no room for exercise, the food is tinned with very little fresh variety. This job is only for the resilient and even then the intensity of life with two other people will of course take its toll. It would certainly not be a job I could do. Nowadays, lighthouses don’t need lamplighters of an evening, for they are mostly automatic, but at one time the job of lighthouse keeper was a valuable and demanding job.
This is in part the story of the keepers – Vince, who has a violent past and has been to prison, Arthur who is the PK (Principal Keeper) who is much admired and Bill, who has a rather lugubrious nature. Their existence together is described and creates the platform for perhaps the more powerful story of the women left behind on the shore – Michelle, Jenny and Helen – and the vicissitudes of their lives. The details of their lives, their mutual relationships then and now, and their hypotheses surrounding the disappearance of their menfolk are brought together by novelist Dan Sharp, who has come to hear their stories.
Trident is the overarching company that manages various lighthouses around the country, and once the men have disappeared over the Christmas period of 1972, they do the seemingly decent thing of providing an on-going pension for the women; but that comes at a cost. It almost feels like a cover-up. Does the secret of what really happened lie with them, perhaps..?
I listened to this as an audiobook, which, for me, was the perfect vehicle for the story, as the narrators voices are strong and beguiling. It is in part told like a chronicle as the women speak to camera (Dan the novelist) as it were, the stories like monologues almost, which felt like a very personalising device as they share the intimacies of their lives, secrets and thoughts.
I came to this book after I had finished listening to the podcast “Death in Ice Valley” which chronicles the story of the Isdal woman, who was found dead in late 1970 above the city of Bergen in Norway, her body burned. At the time of her death, neither her identity nor cause of death had been determined and so two reporters set about retrospectively logging clues and evidence. Having finished that, I was yearning for another curious ‘mystery’ and I found it in The Lamplighters.
An elegant debut with terrific writing. An author to watch.