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.