The Lamplighters – Emma Stonex – Audible Book Review
by Pat Viale
Based on the real-life disappearance of a group of lighthouse keepers on the Flannan Isles in the Outer Hebrides in 1900, Emma Stonex’s début novel is a gripping tale, part whodunnit, part supernatural tale but mainly taut psychological study of the three men who disappeared and of the effect their mysterious fate had on their families and community. Shifting the location and time of her tale to the South of England in 1972, the story begins when a relief boat, coming to collect one of the lighthouse keepers at the end of his 40 day shift, finds a scene reminiscent of the Marie Celeste – the building completely empty, doors locked, clocks all stopped at the same time and the table set for a meal but no sign of any of the men or any hint of what might have happened to them.
When, 20 years later, an author of maritime fiction, Dan Sharp, decides to write a book to try to make sense of the mystery, he contacts the partners of the men and slowly uncovers a web of secrets and duplicity that offers a possible explanation for their fate. The narrative alternates between the two time lines and is presented in turn by each of the men and their partners who offer us a jigsaw of versions and impressions of the same event which we must try to assemble to make sense of what happened.
The harmonious impression of the men, isolated together on the island lighthouse, is soon called into question when we learn from their partners of rivalries and traumas in their past life. Principal keeper, Arthur Black, racked with guilt over the death of his young son is starting to suspect his long-time friend, Bill Walker, of deceiving him. The third keeper, young Vinny Bourne, recently released from prison, has chosen to come here to escape from a dangerous past and is an easy scapegoat for the tragedy when an initial investigation is launched by the organisation who controlled the lighthouses, Trident House. We learn, however, that many facts were hidden by the organisation in order for them to reach an easy verdict.
The disappearance of the men, which might have brought their wives and partners closer, has in fact, had the opposite effect. Dan Sharp comes to realise that there is tension and distrust between all three women and that each defends her partner’s reputation and has secrets of her own that keep her silent. Gradually, however, he is able to encourage them to speak to him and he discovers that they, too, may have had a role in the tragedy.
Stonex’s tale of complex relationships and her almost visceral recreation of life in the confinement of an island lighthouse is totally engaging and she plays constantly with our perceptions and preconceived ideas. If there is a weakness in the novel it is the introduction of supernatural elements which seem unnecessary in a story that is eerie and unsettling enough without them.
The narration could not be better. The story told by the male characters is narrated by Tom Burke (Strike in TV adaptation of the Robert Galbraith series of novels and Orson Wells in this year’s Oscar nominated film “Mank”) and he captures each man’s voice perfectly. Equally good is Indira Varma (Ellaria Sand in “Game of Thrones”) who differentiates between each of the women and is flawless in capturing the tension between them.
The audiobook is available from audible.co.uk and lasts 8hrs and 35 mins.