I don’t want to marry a lighthouse keeper

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters. Picador hardback, 2021, 355 pp.

This was another of the books I bought for Mrs TD for her recent birthday. After she’d read it she passed it on to her sister. They both had reservations about it, and asked me to read it so we could compare responses. I wasn’t impressed either.

Emma Stonex The Lamplighters cover The ‘lamp’ in the title is a fictitious tower lighthouse off SW Cornwall. Such lighthouses are more challenging for the keepers, as there’s no space around the tower as there is on an island lighthouse. This means the three men who tend the lamp are confined together in a claustrophobic atmosphere that becomes very charged.

The story is set in 1972, when the three keepers go missing. The relief boat’s occupants find the lighthouse empty. The door is locked and barred from the inside, and there’s a meal set on the kitchen table – it’s like the Marie Celeste. The two clocks have both stopped at 8:45.

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor (Flannan Isles): attribution –
Marc Calhoun, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a classic ‘locked room (murder?) mystery’, then. With a hint of the supernatural: strange white birds seem to haunt the place. There’s an epigraph at the start from the 1912 poem by WW Gibson, ‘Flannan Isle’, about a similarly strange disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a Victorian lighthouse off the Outer Hebrides. I remember reading it at school: it left a deep impression on me. The three black seabirds – too large to be shags, says the poem, hinting at something sinister – seem to be the vanished keepers transformed. They were never seen again.

Trident House, the organisation that administers the Cornish lighthouse, is intent on covering up what happened to the three men, and pays the widows hush money, admonishing them not to speak to outside investigators (like a local author, who has reasons of his own for investigating what happened). All kinds of outlandish theories about what happened to the men are aired, some of them as far-fetched as those that followed the Flannan Isle disappearance. Spectral figures and supernatural emanations are described – but these could also be a consequence of the keepers’ enforced solitude and increasingly fragile sanity.

There’s probably a good short story or novella in here somewhere. I found the novel much too long, however. It’s structured in alternating time periods: 1972, in which the events leading up to the disappearance are narrated, from the viewpoint of the three keepers, and 1992, when the local writer interviews the widows of the two older men, and the woman who’d been the youngest’s girlfriend at the time.

All three men have secrets and clandestine motives for either doing away with the others, or for feeling threatened by criminal or other menacing outside forces. A visit from a man purporting to be a repair engineer becomes a sort of demonic intrusion – he seems to know all their secrets. The women have tensions of their own between them too. Infidelity and jealousy are rife.

It should be a riveting thriller – but it’s often slack and unengaging. The narrative is flat and often tone deaf, despite some vivid descriptions of the seascapes. Dialogue is strangely listless. The boredom of the men’s routine seeps into the narrative in ways that renders it tedious.

If Emma Stonex had trimmed the length considerably this could have worked as a Stephen King kind of mystery with spooky overtones. It’s become a top ten bestseller. Maybe I’m missing something, but I’d rather read Barbara Pym or Anita Brookner.

PS The novel reminded me (incongruously, given the darkness of its plot) of that jaunty, cheesy song ‘I want to marry a lighthouse keeper’. I couldn’t remember who sang it; an online search brought up someone called Erika Eigen. Funny, I’d remembered it by someone more famous, but can’t recall who I had in mind. Apparently the song featured in Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange – but it’s so long ago that I saw that, I have no recollection of it there. Wikipedia suggests it’s used to show the shallow, trivial taste of Alex’s parents when he’s brought home after the horrific shock treatment to rid him of his violent tendencies. No more Beethoven for him.

20 thoughts on “I don’t want to marry a lighthouse keeper

    • That’s a good point, Lisa, and I can’t say it had really occurred to me – yet now you mention it I suppose it’s obvious. This is going to the charity shop – maybe it’ll find a more appreciative reader out there. I never enjoy writing a negative post about a book.

    • Yes, Liz, it is disappointing that such a promising set up didn’t quite come off. Part of the problem I had was that I found none of the characters very interesting – I know that shouldn’t be a deterrent to liking a novel, but in this case it was.

  1. I’d seen this book on social media etc and thought from the description that it wouldn’t be for me. Your review pretty much confirms that, although I can see why the Cornwall connection might be a point of interest for you.

    • I’m surprised it’s been such a bestseller; maybe there’s a word of mouth vibe about it that finds it a better novel than I did. As for the Cornish connection: that’s pretty much non-existent. It could have been set anywhere by the sea; I didn’t find the narrative had a feel for the location particularly.

  2. I got this as a birthday gift too, and was thinking I might read it next. Disappointed that you’re not a fan. My friend bought it for me because I love a lighthouse. Oh well, I can only give it a try.

  3. You summed the book up very well Simon. A very strange story that as you rightly say could have been a lot more impressive. It was a hard slog getting through it when it should have been enjoyable..

  4. Well, you got me with mention of Flannan Isles, because we did that at school too and I absolutely loved it. Still gives me the chills after all these years!! I love lighthouses too, but I think I will give this a miss – I really don’t want to slog through a book!!

      • I think our mind gives us signals about what it needs at any one time, and that there is a time and place for reading and writing and a time for sitting in stillness, cooking, grandbabies, etc. Looking for tweet on a county fair and women quilting to send you on Twitter with a reference to this. I hope when you finally DO see this comment, that you have had your soul filled to the brim with family, nature, food, fellowship, and the ocean! LIFE, not books!! Cheers! Maureen

  5. There is a wonderful collection of poems, essays, fiction, and reportage on climate change (particularly its impact on the most vulnerable) edited by John Freeman (formerly of Granta). Title is: “Tales of Two Planets – Stories of Cimate Change and Inequality In a Divided World.”

    I think the differences are:

    * Great curation.
    * Excellent writers, many of whom live in the areas they are writing about.
    * Very ittle polemic. Tight and well presented.
    Powerful stuff!

  6. Very disappointing, to slog through a book. I had one of those in early May as well. This seems particularly disheartening, as it appears to have some good ingredients (setting, psychology, intriguing plot). Oh well, on to the next one!

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