When they built these towers they made sure our bedrooms faced the coast, a lighthouse keeper retires to his bed feeling his beacon settle on home and they want your beacon there, they don’t want you getting ideas about the sea beneath you, quieter and deeper than it’s safe to know. a keeper’s in bed, that’s when his memories grow bigger than he is and he needs the land, to be sure it’s there, the way a child listens for his father’s footsteps in the middle of the night. We’re all tied to the land.
Back in 1972 the three men living on the Maidan rock, Aurthur the PK (Principal Keeper), Bill his assistant and their junior, Vince the Young first time keeper, dissapear. Based on a true event Stonex tells us that all the clocks in the tower were stopped showing the same time and that the door was locked from the inside. The story oscillates between events in 1972 and events in the “present day”, 1992 as a writer of maritime fiction takes it on himself, by talking to the bereaved widows, to get to the roots of what happened back then. The opening quote helps to show something of the true loneliness that life, something that back then before the internet and cell phones, that over time could exercise on the keepers who could spend up to three months at a time on duty.
The tower life, of course, attracts men with a reason to live this life, from the PK who had never recovered from his only son’s drowning, to Vince hoping to avoid a life of crime with thisoffering a way out and from Aurthur who believes that living prolonged periods with two other people is “as good as it gets”:
Occasionally it strikes me how much time I spend with men i’d otherwise have nothing to do with. At home I don’t make friends easily, I don’t have the knack. People come and go there’s no time, can’t find a way in. Here it isn’t a choice, we learn to live together in a narrow column with no way out, men become friends, friends become brothers. For “Only Children” this is as good as it gets, when I was a boy I heard it as “Lonely Children”. I thought it was that through to when I was fourteen and saw the right thing printed on a medical pamphlet.
Through the women’s stories and their secrets, through Helen, Jenny and Michele, Stonex tells us of their grief, of their not knowing and why events drove them apart. Beginning by the backwards and forwards in time to let us see some of the pressures, from the shady Trident House that runs the lighthouses and gives no information on what might have happened, to the fact that the company provided housing so that even on land the keepers, and their wives lived next door to each other, sometimes passing long periods at home whilst their neighbour was away, she paints the picture, the background to those events.
In this slow moving, classy, well told whodunnit Stonex leads us on to her imagined final scenes in both 1972 and twenty years later. A story I would warmly recommend.
First Published in English as “The Lamplighters” in 2021 by Picador