Strange Affair at a Lighthouse

The Lamplighters

by Emma Stonex

Review

‘So ghostly in the cold sunlight
It seemed, that we were struck the while
With wonder all too dread for words.
And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bolt-upright
Upon a half-tide reef:’ [Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson]

Although I’d read Emma Stonex’s introduction to The Lamplighters, I was well into the novel before I remembered hazily a poem I had read at school. And it was some time later that I eventually identified Flannan Isle by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson.

In 1900, three keepers mysteriously disappeared from a lighthouse off the north-west coast of Scotland.  The Lamplighters, a work of fiction, is based loosely on that real life incident.

‘There are only so many excuses a man can make for himself. I’m a coward. I must be…. How would it be to never go back?’ (Bill)

Arthur, Bill and Vince are three keepers of the Maiden, a tower lighthouse off the Cornish coast. It is 1972 and Christmas time. A relief boat is despatched in foul weather to land a deputy and take off one of the regular keepers. What the boatman discovers is a perplexing mystery. There is no sign of the three men. The lighthouse is spotlessly clean (as normal), the table is set for breakfast, and the two clocks have spookily stopped at the same time -eight-forty-five.

‘Arthur’s face on the placard didn’t belong to him…. Well, that day I looked at [him] and I understood this was his secret and always would be. Families and friends urged us to fight – for answers and resolution … but it was just too exhausting for me,’ (Helen)

Twenty years later, the mystery has never been solved. A novelist is planning to write a book about the incident using testimony from the three women in the keepers’ lives: Helen, married to Arthur; Jenny, married to Bill; and Michelle, the girlfriend of Vince. But the three all have very different opinions about the wisdom of raking up the past, and what to tell the writer.

‘I don’t mind talking so long as you stop making out like he’s gone. Like he’s dead. He’s not dead. It’s just we’ve got to wait a bit longer, that’s all.’ (Jenny)

Told in two time periods, 1972 and 1992, and from six different points of view, The Lamplighters is a highly original novel of the sea, what it can mean to different people and how it can rule and destroy. Part mystery and part ghost story, it is a character-driven novel of love and loss, full of secrets harboured in both past and present by the protagonists, and by the author – revelations she would hide in clever double-meaning and syntactic ambiguity.

‘She wished that she had been the one to talk about Vinny. Instead it had been Pearl, his aunt, the woman who had raised him. Michelle could have told them what Vinny had really been like, not these lies. Painting him as a thug and a down-and-out.’ (Michelle)

Although I enjoyed the story – Stonex’s prose and style are excellent, as are her characters – and turned the pages eagerly to get to the end, I was disappointed in her resolution of the mystery. I felt she cheated too much. Her explanation of the men’s disappearance, while possible, seemed hardly plausible. I was almost tempted to believe in Wilfrid Gibson’s queer, black, ugly birds!

‘We seemed to stand for an endless while,
Though still no word was said,
Three men alive on Flannan Isle,
Who thought, on three men dead.’ [from Flannan Isle]

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