They say we'll never know what happened to those men. They say the sea keeps its secrets . . .
Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper's weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .
Author Emma Stonex worked as an editor at a major publishing house before she left to write full time. She is the author of bestselling women’s fiction novels under several different pseudonyms, but The Lamplighters is her first novel under her own name, and her piece of literary fiction.
There is something about lighthouses that is both terrifying and reassuring - the calm light of the lighthouse guiding sailors safely to shore reassures, but the thoughts of the isolation amongst the great unknown of the sea, is hugely unsettling, if not outright terrifying.
In 2021, all lighthouses in the UK are automated, so only require occasional visits from lighthouse keepers in order to ensure that everything is working as intended. But back in the 1970's, the process of automation was only just beginning - and men would be sent to live on the lighthouses for months on end. This is where Stonex's novel takes root - contrasting the isolation of those on the lighthouse, with a similar sense of isolation felt by those women left behind.
The disappearance of the men is based on a far earlier tale - the true story of the Flannan Isles disappearance, back in 1900. Many things are carried over from that tale, but updating the story to the early seventies works remarkably well - allowing the story to breathe and grow without getting too bogged down in period detail.
Another benefit of updating the time period is that Emma Stonex is clearly trying not to solve the Flannan Isles disappearance, but is instead taking inspiration for her story set in a different time. It gives her free reign to create new voices for these men, and, perhaps more importantly, the women who were left behind after their disappearance. There is a rawness to how Stonex captures the drawn out grief and anger of these women, forever destined to not know what had happened to those they loved. For me, the relationships between these women were perhaps more interesting than those of the men on the lighthouse - the turbulent emotions of the women proving to be as dark and stormy as the sea that surrounds the lighthouse. In addition, the last year of lockdown, with many of us isolated and at home with maybe just one other person, can begin to feel just the slightest what those lighthouse keepers may have felt - no matter what luxuries you have, the knowledge that you can't go outside is still one that messes with the emotions and ones mental health, no matter what.
The prose encourages you to keep reading - but as things on the lighthouse began to reach a climax, I wasn't just gripped but fully transported - desperate to uncover what had happened and how things would resolve.
Stonex is clearly a huge talent and I anticipate this being just the start of an intriguing career - I'm hugely excited to see what she does next.