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The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex — perils of the sea

Cover of The Lamplighters, an atmospheric novel by Emma Stonex based on a real life historical mystery

The Lamplighters takes inspiration from one of the big unsolved puzzles of modern times: the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in the Outer Hebrides in 1900.

This mystery isn’t in the same league as the disappearance of Lord Lucan, the assassination of John F Kennedy or the existence of the Loch Ness Monster. But questions about the fate of those men filled newspapers around the world for decades, speculation about the cause of their disappearance still evident today.

Emma Stonex’s novel is not a rehash of the events of 1900 however. The Lamplighters is set more than 70 years later than the real life event and features three fictional keepers. They work at Maiden Rock, a Cornish lighthouse that rises out of the sea, whereas the real keepers were on a land-based lighthouse in the Flannan Isles near Scotland.

The change of location gives an added intensity to the atmosphere of the novel. One of the local boatmen remarks how newcomers always arrived with a romantic idea of life out on this rock fifteen miles from land. The reality is vastly different:

There’s nothing special about it, nothing at all, just three men and a lot of water. It takes a certain sort to withstand being locked up. Loneliness . Isolation, Monotony Nothin for miles except sea, sea and more sea. No friends. No women. Just the other two. Day in, dayout unable to get away from them , it could drive you start mad.

Part of The Lamplighters takes place on the lighthouse in the days building up to the men’s disappearance in 1972.

It opens when a boat arrives at the lighthouse to relieve the assistant keeper Bill Walker from his two-month tour of duty. But the boatman finds the place deserted. The door is barred from the inside, the table laid for a meal and the clocks stopped at 8.45am. Of Walker, the principal keeper Arthur Black and their junior Vincent Bourne there is no sign.

In a second strand, Stonex jumps forward twenty years with interest in the mystery re-awakened by a best-selling author who sets out to unearth the truth of the men’s disappearance. His inquiries create anxiety for the wives and girlfriends left behind, awakening fears that secrets they have kept for twenty years could now be forced into the open.

The result is a narrative that is part mystery and part psychological investigation with the occasional drift into the world of the supernatural.

What I Enjoyed

A Lighthouse Keeper’s Life

The Lamplighters provides some fascinating insight into the daily lives of the people who tend to the lighthouse.

We get to experience their isolation, loneliness and tedium of days where every day is essentially the same. They log the weather conditions, fire up the lamp that will send a warning beam far across the waves and clean. In the times between shifts they smoke, listen to the radio, cook using dwindling rations and try to sleep in awkward shaped “banana beds.”.

They have to be self sufficient, unable to guarantee that the occasional supply boat will make it from the mainland in stormy weather. Thrust into each others company day and night for two months in a damp, briny, windowless tower, it’s not surprising that tensions arise periodically.

It’s fair game for a couple of keepers to have a moan about whoever’s not in the room — like unscrewing a bottle, a way of letting it out just to say , ‘Did you notice how annoying it was when he did this; he can be such a stingy prick from time to time can’t he?’ Not meant unkindly but it just keeps things from bubbling away instead of bubbling over.

The Sea,The Sea

As you might expect, the sea is ever present in this novel.

Its mood shifts perpetually, one moment glistening and benign , the next a churning mass whipped up by winds so strong they send boulders slamming into the towers at fifty miles an hour.

The keepers see its beauty and majesty but they know it has a destructive quality, a power that cannot be tamed. They have a whole dictionary of terms to describe its appearance and the surrounding weather conditions: “loud seas, and silent seas, mirror seas and heaving seas … Drizzling. Gloomy. Lightning. Squall. Thunder. Wet Dew. Haze …”

The Maiden is meant to keep them safe, an imposing piece of Victorian engineering jutting fifty feet into the air from a solid granite base. Visible from the keeper’s cottages on shore it acts as a siren, calling them back whenever they are on home leave and reminding them of their other life.

But it’s also a warning to keep away, a structure built according to legend “on the jaws of fossilised sea monsters” which has already claimed lives; men who died during her construction and off course sailors who strayed too close to the warren of rocks that surround its base.

What I Didn’t Enjoy

Dual Time Frame

The Lamplighters is at its strongest in the chapters set on the Maiden. This has atmosphere, mystery and depth of character as the inner lives of the men and their secrets are revealed.

By contrast I found it hard to get engaged in the 1992 chapters featuring the wives of two of the men and the girlfriend of the third. We learn of struggles to cope with loneliness, of not knowing whether their partner is alive or dead — and if dead, how — and guilt over secrets they have never revealed.

These chapters lacked atmosphere and feIt repetitive. I also found the characters irritating, particularly Bill Walker’s wife Jenny. She’s constantly dropping hints about a terrible deed in her past that she has kept secret all these years.

I’d have been happier if the novel had just stayed on the lighthouse.

Irritating Errors

This is yet another novel in which the author manages to get the style of a newspaper report completely wrong.

Very early on we get a short report supposedly printed in The Times on 31 December 1972 reporting that three keepers have disappeared from the lighthouse and an investigation is underway.

Error number one: The Times would not have been published on a Sunday — just as today it was a Monday—Saturday newspaper. Any such article would have appeared in The Sunday Times (completely different editorial team).

Error number two: no newspaper of this stature would never start a news report with “Trident House has been informed of …” Something along the lines of “An investigation has been launched into the mysterious disappearance of ….”

A few pages later we get an article from The Independent in 1992 about the author Dan Sharp who wants to re-visit the keepers’ disappearance. This is similarly structured completely incorrectly for a news article.

I know I’m especially sensitive to those kinds of errors given my previous life as a journalist. Other readers might not find anything amiss but it irritates me immensely that fiction writers don’t invest more time getting the tone and structure right whenever they veer into the world of news reporting.

The Ending

Were the three men spirited away by some supernatural force? Did the feelings of isolation become so overwhelming they all committed suicide? Was the junior keeper the victim of a hit man from his criminal past? All these possibilities remain in play until the final pages of the novel.

The mystery element is well handled and kept me engaged. The denouement was a satisfying explanation for the men’s disappearance.

But then we got an additional revelation about the true identity of the author Dan Sharp and a puzzling decision he makes about his book. All completely unnecessary, a tying up of loose ends that could easily have remained loose since they had little material effect on the narrative.

Worth Reading?

It isn’t a poor book by any means, just not as good as it could have been. I was the lone voice when we discussed it at our book club meeting — every other member thoroughly enjoyed its atmosphere and sense of mystery. If you enjoy those elements in a book, then give it a go — you might be as enthralled by it as my fellow book club members.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

19 thoughts on “The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex — perils of the sea

  • Well, you have prompted me to jump down a brand new rabbit hole – I’d somehow actually never heard of the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers! Clearly, I’m going to be obsessed with this story for a while. I think I’ll hold off reading The Lamplighters until I’ve got my fill of the real story 😅

    • It does sound intriguing – like you I couldn’t resist the temptation to find out more about the original story

  • I started and abandoned it as the style was not for me. However, a few months ago I read a non-fiction book called Seashaken Houses which was an excellent read about the history of lighthouses in Britain.

    • The style was not consistent unfortunately – some parts I thought were great but others very over written

  • Regarding the journalistic mistakes made here, it reminds me of how irritated I was at Richard Adams’s The Plague Dogs (1977) when he completely got the style of tabloid news items wrong – it tainted my enjoyment of the story and stopped me suspending disbelief in the plot. So, a pity here that Stonex and/or her editor didn’t sort this out during the pre-publication process.

    • Fact checking clearly wasn’t thorough enough to have picked up the very basic error about a newspaper that wouldn’t have been published. It annoyed me so much it took a while to get back into the story – I was on the alert for other errors!

  • This is a book I’ve been dithering about, the setting and unusual lives of the keepers appealed, but I’ve had doubts about that modern storyline, it’s rare that they work well. I’ll go with your judgment and give this one a miss.

  • I am fond of lighthouses and this review made me think of this latest news: Looking for a place with waterfront views? The government might have a deal for you.
    On Friday, the General Services Administration said it was giving away six lighthouses to nonprofits or government agencies that promise to maintain them and planned to sell four others to the public at auction. Read more of this story from the New York Times:
    Anyhow, this review is very good because it feels to me like the book was read since at times reviews come across to me as if not the whole book was read or some chapters read and the rest finagled along but I am always wrong.
    I cannot imagine that it would be lonesome to care for a lighthouse; when I heard the news about the lighthouse being given away for free, I thought, it was a great opportunity to have a home by the sea but in fact, they want the owners to preserve the lighthouse and to open them to the public and this dissuaded me from wanting one. I misunderstood; well, a lighthouse can be haunted by ghosts or spirits as read in one of the mystery books that I reviewed a while back; another reason to not want a lighthouse is that they are still nice to view as they are markers for ships sailing in the ocean…for them to know that they are approaching land or such.

  • A friend bought this for me. I think I was very kind in my review, because I thought she would probably read my review and be upset if I said I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it much. I liked some of the descriptions of the sea, and the past narrative. I loved the lighthouse details because I love lighthouses. I hated the modern narrative.

    • I’m reassured to find that the issue I had with the modern day narrative was also your experience Ali.

  • Thanks for this – I’ve been vaguely circling it, because I have a bit of a thing about lighthouses and the Flannan Isles story (from reading the poem by Wilfred Gibson at an early age!) But I think now this is not for me, particularly with all the later additional sections. Thanks for reading it so I don’t have to!!!

  • I think I would have been on your team too, because I get irritated by the intrusion of ‘Women’ into stories where they don’t belong. You know, like those war movies with obligatory women getting more air time in their roles than the men who actually went away to fight. These days you can’t have a movie that looks like it really was any more.

    • Oh yes that forced inclusion of a female character annoys the hell out of me too. They’re either “feisty” or “flashy/sexy” or the dependable type. Often inserted just to create a romantic interest…nothing at all to do with the actual story

      • The one that makes me most cross is the integration of African Americans into WW2 US military units. It’s not only historically inaccurate, it’s a falsification of the truth, which was that their units were segregated and it continued to be official policy until 1948. Films that cover this up are perpetrating a lie.

        • You know that old adage – never let the facts get in the way of a good story! Seriously though, this is an attempt to re-write history to make the nation look more inclusive than it was – and still is in many ways.

  • Hmm. Without having read it, I suppose I shouldn’t judge. But I’ve a feeling I would have been on your team at your book group meeting. Avoidable errors are so irritating. So I’ve feeling I shan’t be hunting very hard for this book. Which is a shame. It sounds a really interesting premise.

    • After such an interesting premise and a really strong opening I’m afraid the rest just didn’t live up to the expectations I had….


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