All at sea: Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters (Picador 2022)

First line: When Jory opens the curtains, the day is light and grey, the radio playing a half-known song.

Author Emma Stonex was inspired to write The Lamplighters by an unsolved mystery from 1900: the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote rock light on the island of Eilean Mòr in the Outer Hebrides.

The Lamplighters transposes this event to the Maiden Rock Lighthouse, fifteen miles southwest of Land’s End, on 31 December 1971. When the boat bearing the relief keeper arrives at the lighthouse after a delay of several days, it’s found to be completely empty. The door is barred from the inside and the table is set for a meal, but there’s no trace of Principal Keeper Arthur Black, Assistant Keeper Bill Walker or Supernumerary Assistant Keeper Vince Bourne.

I loved this novel. Stonex brings a keen intelligence to bear on the possible solutions to the mystery and explores these skilfully via two interlinked timelines. The first is set in 1971/1972, in which the reader is shown the events prior to and immediately following the disappearances from multiple characters’ perspectives. The second takes place in 1992 and examines the unsettling effects on the still unsolved mystery on those left behind, particularly Helen and Jenny, Arthur and Bill’s wives, and Vince’s girlfriend Michelle.

Cutaway of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Scotland, built by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Lamplighters draws on different genres with aplomb. It’s most definitely a mystery novel, but also a ghost novel of sorts, and a novel about the complexity of human relationships (the characterisation is wonderful). It also offers fascinating insights into the lost world of lightkeeping and the realities of living in a very confined space with two other people for weeks on end — something that will resonate with those who’ve been through pandemic lockdowns. And then there’s the vast, beautiful, treacherous sea, which is really a character in its own right, and influences the action in a number of ways.

I hoovered up this novel in the course of just two evenings. It’s a wonderfully absorbing page-turner, with revelation after revelation forcing you to recalibrate your ideas about what the truth of the mystery might be.

Do we find out what happened in the end?
You’ll have to read it yourself to see…