Come for the review – stay for the over-analysis
Okay first up – I always enjoy myself stories abut Lighthouses, and clearly I can’t be the only one. Secondly Stonex is a very cool surname!
As to the book – I must confess I’ve been mostly nostalgia reading fiction lately so I’m probably a bit positively biased to pick up a more recent book. The story of Lamplighters is divided up between 1972 when the three men disappeared and 1992 when a curious author investigates the event, largely told by the three wives left behind.
The narrative I would describe as a little strange, the perspective of the three women tends towards ‘stream of consciousness’ where we get a mix of history, opinion and perception drip-fed to us the reader to generate the mystery. In these moments there isn’t a lot of grounding prose, dialogue is rarely captioned, and descriptions are heavily in the POV of the character.
When back in 1972 we get 1st person POV from one of the men and we tend to get more visceral ‘lighthouse’ type imagery and experience. The overall experience is quite odd, sometimes disorientating but useful to keeping the mystery alive.
Obviously the main plot thread is the question of what happened to the 3 men, but Stonex does a good job exploring the many inner workings of the character’s lives – diving into themes about family, the past, guilt and truth. So on the one hand while I said the story’s main plot was obvious it actually kinda isn’t, in many ways this book as about everything except the exact reason the men disappeared.
While there are a couple of nail-biting and tense moments, I would say overall the story is more of a character study than a thriller, I see some other reviewers deducted points for this not being a more classic story structure.
Really I only have one beef with this story, and that is at times between the 6 characters across 2 times periods perspectives, it was sometimes hard to retain who was who and how all the characters interlinked. I think part of this was intentional to create a bit of a sense of being adrift, but in my opinion just a few clearer markers for each character could have been ideal – also it was almost impossible to keep track of minor characters properly as they’d often just be mentioned in passing and kinda up to the reader to be aware of their significance (or not).
Overall – happy with this one! Read on if you don’t mind spoilers and want a bit of over-analysis
So I won’t probably capture the whole book here, but just a quick summary to set the scene.
The story begins with a brief segment introducing the Main Character: The Maiden Lighthouse – a ‘tower’ lighthouse, one of those ones that literally sticks out of the rocks, with little more than a ‘donut’ railing around the base, no separate cabins, or storage, the keepers have to sleep on bent bunk-beds.
Sorry, as to human characters we are introduced briefly to Vincent, Bill, and Arthur the 3 lighthouse keeper who we are told mysteriously disappeared that year details unknown.
Fast-forward to 1992 (8 years ago right??) and we are introduced to the wives of the men, Helen, Jenny, and Michelle. (as mentioned in the review at times its hard to keep track of the matches and mismatches so if I get something wrong please forgive). The Women’s stories are kickstarted by the appearance of “Dan Sharp” an author who wants to investigate the disappearance and write a story about it.
While the obvious plot thread would be information about the disappearance the actual story here is about the past, and the characters responses and ways of dealing with past loss and trauma. As the story progresses we learn that Helen and Arthur lost a son at sea, Arthur filled with guilt and depression buries himself in his work and the Lighthouse. Bill’s mother died in childbirth and his father blamed and abused him for it, Bill’s perspective appears to be one of delusion and cynicism and he has an ‘affair’ of sorts with Helen. Vincent’s mother was an addict and he grew up on the wrong side of the law, prior to working at the Lighthouse he engaged in some particularly disturbing animal cruelty to punish a rival, and after leaving prison is both on the run from his own guilt and potential retaliation.
For the most part the women’s stories are about the impact of the loss of their husbands, but also their reactions to the above events.
From a literally perspective its an interesting juxtaposition of gender, having a thread about 3 men and another thread about 3 women – I don’t think its meant to be that explicit but there is a sense of contrast, the men in the story retreat into isolation and fall apart (more on that later) while the women attempt to move on with their lives.
In terms of the main mystery there are a number of red herrings, the official line is that Vincent a criminal must have killed the others, however we also have a mysterious visitor that may have been associated with Vincent’s rival, penultimately we are told that driven mad by grief Arthur killed the men and himself. The final reveal is in fact Bill did the deed, after half-heartedly not-rescuing Vince from accidently falling into the sea, Bill decides its OK to continue on this path and clubs Arthur, in Bill’s deluded mind still entertaining a life with Helen. Unfortunately for his plans Bill is (possibly) killed by the ghost of Arthur’s child.
However the final scene of the story which sees Dan Sharp’s manuscript thrown to the wind tells us that the mystery of the men’s disappearance its the relevant ending, its the resolution of trauma that we see the characters go through.
One of the more disappointing aspects of the story is we learn the author uses a pen name and their real identity is relevant. It turns out he is the son of the main boatman for the Lighthouse a minor character named Jory who barely features in the story. It’s a bit of a letdown because it doesn’t really add too much to the tale other than to just pummel the theme of past trauma.
Through the Women’s stories we find out about their own responses to the past of the men, but also how they’ve coped with the loss. Helen tells us that she didn’t really have an affair with Bill, other than a stray kiss but then she struggled to distance herself while he kept pursuing the affair. Jenny was very aware of the whole thing and suffering terribly poisoned some chocolates that she sent with Bill – unfortunately Vince ate the chocolates resulting in an illness that may have contributed to him falling into the sea. Michelle lives a complicated life, having remarried but still considers Vince the love of her life, and also fears losing the financial support of the company if she speaks up against their assessment that Vince likely killed the others.
The women are estranged from each other at the beginning of the book, but as they tell their stories they finally reconcile. All struggling with the past they each must get to a place where they tell the truth and accept their losses to do this.
In my opinion the story speaks to the effects of loss and trauma, how you can isolate and bury the past, or be open and reconnect. The men and the Lighthouse represent problematic ways of dealing with a dark past. Vincent tries to evade his history and it catches up with him, Bill is so deluded in his perspective he thinks he can murder his friend and be with his wife. Arthur is so torn up with guilt and grief he literally deteriorates mentally and physically.
The Women on the other hand, attempt to overcome their past through telling the truth and connecting with people. While not perfect, Jenny for example attempts to poison Bill rather than confronting him and ends up hurting Vince (a comment on spreading pain in revenge) she confesses all to her daughter who is both understanding and forgiving.
The destruction of Dan Sharp’s manuscript, after he allows Helen to decide the ending – its a slightly cheesy “it’s not about the ending but about the journey” type statement, but its a deeper comment on not necessarily being empowered to fabricate your own through, but to take hold of one’s own story and the relevance thereof. In some respects saying the important part was not how the men disappeared but that they did and what the women did after.
While some might have been disappointed that this story didn’t have a thrilling conclusion its an intriguing end nonetheless.
Has anyone else read the book? Would be intrigued to hear your take on it…