The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex review – haunting folk tale rebooted

Sarah Hughes
·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Bluegreen Pictures/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Bluegreen Pictures/Alamy

Anyone who grew up in Scotland in the 70s and early 80s can tell you about the lighthouse keepers of the remote Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides in the early 20th century. The story of the three men who settled down to eat only to seemingly vanish into thin air haunted my childhood – and it would appear that of Emma Stonex too. The author’s first novel under her own name transports the location to the close-knit but still remote Cornish coast and updates the action, plausibly, to 1972 – an era when mobile phones don’t exist – before flashing forward to 1992 when an investigative journalist believes he has uncovered the truth but needs the men’s very different widows and girlfriends to prove it.

These tweaks apart, events remain unnervingly similar: the stopped clocks; the unfinished meals; the log that records a heavy storm despite clear skies that week; the mysterious visitor.

It is the complicated relationship between the three women left behind that is most vivid

Stonex is excellent on the tensions between the three men: laid-back Vince trying to outrun a violent past, Arthur, the principal keeper who has done the job so well and who cannot bring himself to quit because of a terrible secret, and taciturn Bill, whose silence hides a melancholy streak.

Stonex adeptly captures the monotony of that life – “I’ve been out here too long,” [thinks Arthur]. “Lonely nights and reels of sark spooling and unravelling to the black sea” – and her plot turns with as much precision as Arthur’s beloved timepieces before coming to a satisfying, surprising conclusion.

Yet rather than the mystery, it is the complicated relationship between the three women left behind that is most vivid. Graceful, middle-class Helen faithfully tending her dead husband’s flame, mousy Jenny who wants to put it all behind her and Michelle who was very young when she met Vince and has built a new life.

Hatred, distrust, lies and an unexpected sort of love binds these women in an elegant novel that is as interested in the notion of hope and acceptance as it is in murder and revenge.

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