Emma Stonex’s debut novel The Lamplighters is based loosely on the true story of the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote lighthouse in 1900. Stonex relocates the event to a more recent time and a slightly different location but maintains the mystery and the mythology that surrounds those who spent their lives to keep the coastal lights burning. At the same time, she delves into the lives of those men and their families and the secrets that they carried.
The Lamplighters opens in 1972, a resupply boat is heading out to The Maiden, a lighthouse that sits on a rocky outcrop off the coast and is often inaccessible due to heavy seas. The crew of the boat find the three lighthousekeepers missing. But more than that, the heavy steel door of the lighthouse is locked from the inside, the table is set for two, and a cold cup of tea is sitting by one of the armchairs. Twenty years later and the mystery of the disappearance is reopened by a writer who wants to interview the two wives and ex-girlfriend of the three men. This investigation will reopen old wounds but also bring long held secrets into the open, casting more light of what might have actually happened in 1972. At the same time, the narrative drops back to that time and the weeks leading up to the men’s tragic disappearance.
The Lamplighters is a perfectly paced mystery. Stonex doles out clues and revelations carefully both in the “present day” narrative of 1992 and the flashbacks to the lives of the keepers. In doing so, Stonex works in traditional elements of ghost stories and ancient tales around lighthouses, blurring the line a little between the real and the imagined. These elements and revelations build on each other, adding layers to both of the stories and the characters as the story progresses. Overall an assured and completely absorbing debut.
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Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.