The Lamplighters (2021) – Emma Stonex

Title:The Lamplighters
Author:Emma Stonex
Publisher/s:Picador/Pan Macmillan
Date Published:2021
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Pan Macmillan kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

“It’s not too late for the others. There are some lights that can still be lit.”

In 1972 three lighthouse keepers go missing from The Maiden Rock lighthouse in Cornwall. The empty lighthouse, locked from the inside, is discovered by a man named Jory Martin, sent to relieve one of the men of their duty for a few months. The lighthouse is found with two clocks stopped at the exact same time, and in the kitchen, the table has been set for two people, not three. Their bodies are never found, and the only thing the men left behind are their families, and a whole lot of questions about the day they went missing and were never seen again.

Emma Stonex has written a novel based loosely on the real disappearances of three light-housekeepers in 1900 from the island of Eileen Mor – their names were Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald MacArthur. The Lamplighters is loosely based on their story, though it is mostly fictionalized to create a thrilling ghost story that jumps between the weeks leading up to the men’s disappearance in 1972, and to 1992, when, 20 years later, a journalist named Dan Sharp is writing a book about what happened.

Arthur Black was the Principle Keeper, and he was married to Helen. The Blacks had a son named Tommy who drowned when he was just three years old. Bill Walker was the Assistant Keeper married to Jenny, and with whom he had three children. Vinny Bourne was the Supernumerary Assistant Keeper whose girlfriend Michelle still mourns Vinny’s death. Over the years the women have had very little to do with one another, though Helen continues to write to them both hoping to keep in contact, and though Michelle seems to be open to Helen’s letters, Jenny has chosen to keep to herself.

Trident, the company responsible for hiring the men all those years ago has continued to send all three women a financial stipend every month, and 20 years later they are still receiving money from Trident. For some reason, the company hopes the women will continue to keep quiet about what they think may have happened to the men all those years ago – even though no one is sure, and will most likely never know the truth of that fateful day at Maiden Rock.

Dan Sharp, a journalist and the author of a series of novels has decided to write about the disappearances. His sudden presence in the women’s lives dredges up a lot of painful memories and has those involved and those left behind asking the same questions once again – ultimately forcing them to acknowledge who Arthur, Bill, and Vinny truly were behind closed doors, and within the confines of that lighthouse.

In truth, Arthur was a man who took his job as PK very seriously, wrote poetry, and mourned the loss of his son. Arthur felt more at home on the Maiden Rock, more than he ever felt when at home with Helen. His greatest fear was the day when they would no longer need lighthouse keepers, and everything would be automated – a sad reality 20 years later.

Bill always felt more at home on the lighthouse. At home on land with Jenny and the kids, he spent days trying to catch glimpses of the true love of his life – Maiden Rock. Jenny, who always hated being left alone, felt even more lonely when Bill was home. She always felt that Bill had secrets and that someone (or something) else had his heart.

Michelle married a man who doesn’t understand her continued loyalty towards her ex-boyfriend Vinny. At the time of the disappearance, he was the most obvious suspect owing to his criminal record – the details of which only Michelle knows. When the press learned of Vinny’s record it was believed for a time that he had murdered them, and afterward had chosen to run away. Twenty years later and Michelle still remains adamant that Vinny had nothing to do with the men disappearing.

The women are all wary to talk to Dan Sharp and Trident would like to keep the story under wraps. In the meantime, the novel reads like a logbook of the men’s last few weeks, and the suffocating nature of people living in a confined space cut off from the rest of the world and trying to remain sane. One by one they all three seem to be unraveling in their own dark ways, and soon the lighthouse will stand empty, locked from the inside, and the clocks forever stopped.

What happened that dark night? Arthur’s meticulous notes mention an impending storm even though the sky was clear, and there are rumors that an unsolicited mechanic visited the lighthouse, even though no one knows anything about the mysterious Sid who arrived to fix the lighthouse’s broken generator.

This riveting novel is a thriller and a Gothic tale of ghostly presences. It is also a mystery and a novel about grief that does not dissolve as the years pass. It is a delicately crafted story about love, and the lengths we will go to keep our stories safe. The Lamplighters is about the men who kept the lights lit and held secrets, and the women who kept these same secrets, decades after the world stop needing men to guard lighthouses and guide ships to safe harbor.

“In all my years I’ve realized that there are two kinds of people. The ones who hear a creak in a dark, lonely house, and shut the windows because it must have been the wind. And the ones who hear a creak in a dark, lonely house, light a candle, and go take a look.”

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