Book review: The Lamplighters is an atmospheric lighthouse whodunnit

Emma Stonex sets her story in Cornwall in 1972, where three keepers vanish from a lighthouse without a clue. PHOTOS: MELISSA LESAGE, PICADOR


The Lamplighters
By Emma Stonex
Macmillan/ Paperback/ 358 pages/ $29.95/ Available here
3 out of 5

A landmark and a lonely outpost, the lighthouse has a strong hold on the imagination. It plays a major role in works from writer Virginia Woolf's novel To The Lighthouse to film-maker Robert Eggers' movie The Lighthouse (2019).

Inspired by the real-life disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in 1900 in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, The Lamplighters is an atmospheric whodunnit.

Emma Stonex, who works in publishing, sets her story in Cornwall in 1972, where three keepers vanish from a lighthouse without a clue.

Twenty years later, a novelist tries to solve the mystery and gets in touch with the surviving wives and girlfriend of the men.

The narrative flips between the months leading up to the disappearance and the investigation decades later.

The keepers take turns to narrate the story, from unflappable Arthur, the PK or principal keeper; to brittle Bill and rookie Vince, whose cheerful exterior belies a shameful past.

As the narrative flashes forward to 1992, the women get their turn to talk about their men, slowly revealing past secrets and grudges.

This neatly structured work, imbued with Gothic elements of mystery and darkness, is a cut above the usual crime novel.

Much of its appeal stems from its close-up view of the men's lives inside their claustrophobic tower home, from their monastic routines and spartan digs to the rugged romanticism of having natural elements like "hulking clouds" outside their windows.

It feeds readers' curiosity about how people can live in such a quiet fashion - something which many people have had to do during the current pandemic.

Being cooped up for months inside a sealed-off environment like a lighthouse, with little privacy from co-workers and nowhere to escape to, sure sounds hellish.

Perhaps it is their seclusion, odd shift hours or all the time they have on their hands. All three keepers are wont to reflect deeply, examining their past hurts and future hopes in their "soliloquies".

The overall tone of the book is dark, sombre and even philosophical, but it is highly improbable that the men are all like the rare INFJ personality types on the Myers-Briggs test - sensitive souls hoping to know themselves better.

This false note notwithstanding, The Lamplighters is an engrossing read that whisks readers away to the lonely seas and shines a light into the dark recesses of the mind.

  • If you like this, read: The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Vintage Books, 2014, $28.13, available here), a psychological thriller about the interior life of a woman who is obsessed with the picture-perfect family who lives nearby.

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