The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is inspired by the true story of three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished from the island of Eilean Mor on 26th December 1900. Wilfred Wilson Gibson wrote a poem about the incident, Flannan Isle, published in 1912, and Stonex picks up the basic details and speculates a fresh plot based on a more contemporary version of the tale.
I remember reading the Gibson poem in secondary school, and being captivated by the atmosphere and evocative location, which was further accelerated by the Doctor Who story The Horror of Fang Rock. So for most of my life I have harboured a fondness for the richly textured and infinitely creepy location of the lighthouse. Perhaps it’s a fear of the sea’s power and the hostility of the weather, or maybe it’s just the idea of being stranded on an isolated rock miles from safety and other comforts…
The Lamplighters tells the story of three lighthouse keepers, Arthur, Bill and Vince – all very different characters – who are thrown together in isolation on the Maiden Rock lighthouse, fifteen miles southwest of Land’s End. It is 1972 and the novel is peppered with cultural references to remind us of the time setting. We’re drip-fed information, with individual chapters told from each man’s viewpoint, building an impression of the fractious relationship between them. Slowly key details are revealed. Intersected between are chapters set in 1992, told from the viewpoints of the women involved with these men – respectively Helen, Jenny and Michelle – who are still dealing with the aftermath of their partner’s disappearances, and whom have been contacted by an author who is interested in writing a book about the event. Again, the uneasiness of the women and their strained relationship is well depicted, filling in the gaps their mental states have undergone in the intervening years.
The novel is well researched, and includes fascinating details about the men who worked in the lighthouse service, equally as much covering the mental requirements of the job as well as the physical aspects. In the intervening years the role has almost become redundant, due to technology making it automated, so it feels like we are dealing with a story lost in the mists of time. This is a good I enjoyed. It’s a well-paced novel with believable emotional complexities. I look forward to reading more of Stonex’s future work.