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The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex review – a superb debut

The Guardian logo The Guardian 06/03/2021 Christobel Kent
a rocky cliff with water and a mountain in the background: Photograph: Rod Edwards/Alamy © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Rod Edwards/Alamy

On New Year’s Eve 1972, a boat arrives at the Maiden Rock lighthouse, 15 nautical miles southwest of Land’s End, to relieve assistant keeper and family man Bill Walker from a two-month tour of duty. But Walker, principal keeper Arthur Black and their junior Vincent Bourne have all disappeared without trace, leaving the door barred, the table laid and the clocks stopped at a quarter to nine. Twenty years later, in an attempt to solve the stubborn mystery, a young writer of maritime adventure stories comes to interview the women the lighthousemen left behind – and thus is launched Emma Stonex’s superbly accomplished debut novel The Lamplighters.

Proud and pragmatic Helen, jumpy, depressed homebody Jenny and harried mother Michelle have kept each other at a prickly distance over the intervening years. Each defends her husband’s reputation and has her own reasons for keeping silent. Interweaving the individual stories of the men’s last days on the rock with the women’s accounts of their lives then, now and in between, the immaculately paced narrative circles the central awful truth inside the abandoned lighthouse.

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Inspired by the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse keepers off the Hebrides in 1900, The Lamplighters is a whodunnit, horror novel, ghost story and fantastically gripping psychological investigation rolled into one. It is also a pitch-perfect piece of writing. As it threads together the inner lives of the men and women and gradually exposes their secret torments, the novel sets the intense and dangerous lyricism of the lighthouse’s heightened world against the banal, fretful prose of life on shore, with dinners spoiled and children crying. The descriptions of the damp, briny, windowless interior of the Maiden, the shifting seas, the choking fogs and sudden, unnatural sounds, are simply breathtaking; and, like all the best literary writing, they don’t halt the action, they lift and propel it. Stonex evokes increasing madness in a confined space with subtle intelligence, but she never loses track of the numbing grimness of the everyday, and what it takes to keep going under intolerable pressures.

a rocky cliff with water and a mountain in the background: A heightened world … Godrevy lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall. © Photograph: Rod Edwards/Alamy A heightened world … Godrevy lighthouse off the coast of Cornwall.

As with Shirley Jackson’s work or Sarah Waters’s masterpiece Affinity, in Stonex’s hands the unspoken, unexamined, unseen world we can call the supernatural, a world fed by repression and lies, becomes terrifyingly tangible. It brushes against us as we sleep, more real than home, more dangerous than the gun in the drawer.

• The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex is published by Pan Macmillan (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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