The Maiden is an imposing lighthouse surrounded by sea on all sides, which makes it even more shocking when all three of its lightkeepers vanish, though its doors are locked from the inside. Twenty years later, the women who were left behind are still haunted by the ghosts of the men the lost, but the truth may be stranger than anyone could guess in this riveting, creepy mystery novel.
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.
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... 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.
Oh, what a beautiful and elegant book this is! Told in dual timescales, it starts in 1972 with the dissapearance of three keepers from a Cornish lighthouse. The other time-frame is 1992, and follows the men's wives and girlfriends as a journalist tries to find out what happened to their partners. Part mystery, part love story, this is a highly accomplished debut.
It is rare for a story to hold as fast to its secrets as Emma Stonex’s literary suspense mystery The Lamplighters. Its setting is Cornwall, though not as a holiday destination, but as a bleak, emotionally desolate place in thrall to its elements. In December 1972 a relief boat arrives at the Maiden Rock lighthouse, off Land’s End. They find the iron entrance barred from inside, a meal set for two, clocks stopped and a log describing imaginary storms...
Some of Stonex’s voices are more plausible than others, but what remains hauntingly convincing is her evocation of the sea, of the lighthouse’s claustrophobic isolation and the terror of a mind closing in on itself.
Stonex jumps between 1972 and 1992, alternating perspectives between the men in the Maiden and the wives and girlfriends on shore who, 20 years later, are forced to confront the tragedy all over again when a novelist, suspecting a cover up, decides to write a book about what happened. Inevitably buried secrets and trauma emerge. Relationships are revealed to be not what they seem. It’s a pity Stonex stuffs her novel with so much back story: the plot feels over-rigged. Her writing is often lovely, though. Thanks to her, I’ll always think of sage whenever I look at the sea. And of vinegar, kept in the fridge.