The Lamplighters review: a beautifully written character study with an underwhelming mystery at its heart

Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper’s weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.

What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?

To what extent you enjoy The Lamplighters will depend, I suspect, on whether you are more of a literary reader or a genre one. The expectations you go in with will be defined by your taste in fiction and will likely dictate whether you find this locked room mystery gripping or a little lacklustre.

Literary fans are likely to relish the beautifully detailed, evocative observations of the world and the deep journey into the minds of the three keepers in the run up to their disappearance, and of their wives and girlfriend 20 years later, still haunted by the past.

Genre fans, like myself, on the other hand may find the story a bit lacking. This isn’t because we can’t appreciate exceptional prose, because we can, but because we have different ideas about what a mystery book with a strong hint of a ghost story should entail.

While I enjoyed The Lamplighters, for me it fell short in a few key areas that left me feeling a little unsatisfied once I had turned the final few pages.

Just look at that cover. It’s vivid and evocative – perfectly matching the quality of the prose within.

An interesting locked room mystery with a lacklustre conclusion

It’s hard to talk about the mystery without giving a lot away, so all I’ll say is that the conclusion in rather underwhelming. Considering at the start we’re presented with a locked room mystery, the reveal isn’t exactly stunning.

While it’d be pretty impressive if you managed to predict exactly what happens, in many ways the details are moot. What happens overall isn’t really surprising.

But I don’t think it’s supposed to be. This isn’t a genre mystery. The how and the what aren’t actually the mystery in this scenario, it’s the why that’s important. The novel isn’t failing to deliver because in was never trying to on this front.

I think perhaps a little too much focus on the mystery aspect in certain areas of the marketing has set the book up to disappoint a lot of people who, like me, will read it expecting something else.

A deep dive into multiple characters

What this novel is really about is the six main characters – keepers Arthur, Bill and Vince and their respective wives Helen, Jenny and Michelle (in the latter’s case Vince’s girlfriend).

The narrative jumps between the inner thoughts of each of the keepers in 1972 as the date of their disappearance draws near, and their partners, largely twenty years later when bestselling novelist Dan Sharp starts looking into the mystery.

I’ve never had a problem with stories told from multiple viewpoints, but some might given that not only are there six, but also there are different formats used at different points in the novel.

The keepers’ thoughts are more like diary entries, while the women’s chapters are often delivered as a single long monologue, entirely in unbroken dialogue, as they speak to Dan Sharp about what happened. There are some bits in the form of letters, and others in a more standard third person prose.

While I didn’t find that an issue, there were a few things that did grate on me.

Characters unfairly keep their secrets

One is structural, and is that pretty much every character has A Secret, and spends a lot of their sections alluding to it without revealing it until the story needs the reader to know.

This gets frustrating because, within the logic of the story, there is no reason other than to serve the purpose of the narrative for characters to withhold this information.

We get a deep and nuanced view into their minds, yet when thinking about key, often devastating moments in their past we’re supposed to believe that they’d actually think of those as simply ‘what happened’ or something equally vague.

Again we can compare to genre fiction, where of course key information is also kept from the reader, but this is generally because the protagonist hasn’t learned it yet. The narrator would have no business revealing something that character was unaware of, and we’d be annoyed if they did.

But in The Lamplighters we’re gazing into these characters’ souls and yet we’re finding walls where there shouldn’t be any.

This is particularly frustrating because in this story the person investigating the mystery is the one person who’s perspective we barely get. We’re following the people who have many of the answers, not the person asking the questions.

Beautifully written, but in need of cutting back

The second issue is more technical. While the writing is beautiful and there is some truly wonderful imagery, there are passages that feel like a sensory overload.

Emma Stonex is a hugely talented writer, that’s obvious, but sometimes the prose feels like the imagery has been poured on rather than sprinkled. It lessens the effect.

The constant jumps in perspective also make it harder to buy into the general style of the story. While the characters are generally complex and intriguing, it becomes hard to believe that all of them can look at the world in such an artistic way.

It’s an interesting thing when you think about it; the majority of stories with a first person narrator were kind of lucky that such notable events worthy of being retold ‘happened’ to someone who was really good at storytelling.

A beautifully told story full of character, somewhat undermined by structural and narrative choices

Overall The Lamplighters is a story full of artistic merit, with a central concept intriguing enough to keep me reading through to the end even when certain stylistic elements began to weigh down the story.

The conclusion is unsatisfactory for someone with a strong preference for genre like me, but I feel that even though literary fiction fans will get more out of this, many would still say that not all the elements had been suitably developed to the point where their role in the resolution felt entirely natural.

This review may sound quite critical, but I’d read The Lamplighters again. I feel like I’d enjoy it more the second time around, now that I know not to focus so much on the mystery and just to enjoy the style, the imagery, and the depth of the characters.

The blurb in the opening paragraphs is taken from the official page for The Lamplighters on the Pan Macmillan website. The Lamplighters is by Emma Stonex, the cover art by Max Ellis, and the jacket design by Katie Tooke.

Come talk books with me on Twitter: @RewanTremethick

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