The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex
Reviewed by Daisy Young
The festive season may be on the horizon, but we can’t let November go by without talking about at least one spooky story. Inspired by real-life events, Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters is a thought-provoking tale of love and intrigue…
Immediately, we are thrown into the deep end of the narrative with the discovery of three missing lighthouse keepers: Arthur, Bill and Vince. It’s 1972 and Christmas is only days away, yet on the remote Maiden lighthouse – off the coast of Cornwall – the keepers are nowhere to be found. Dinner is on the table; tea is half drunk and the clocks have stopped. What happened?
Fast forward twenty years and the papers announce that an acclaimed author wants to crack the mystery of Maiden vanishings by talking to those who knew the keepers. We now meet Helen (Arthur’s wife), Jenny (Bill’s wife), and Michelle (Vince’s ex-girlfriend). Each woman has her own idea of what happened that day at the lighthouse, and each is clinging to the memories of her immortalised lost love. However, as the story unfolds, we realise things are not what they first appear. Stonex cleverly weaves a catch into each of the relationships, which are slowly revealed to us as Helen, Jenny and eventually Michelle, share their memories of the missing men.
The story straddles two timelines: 1972 and 1992, following the day the men went missing alongside the women’s later accounts. The depictions of the keepers become warped as we are exposed to their personal thoughts, allowing us to form our own opinions of them. The ever-stoic Arthur is haunted by grief and seeks comfort in the routine of the lighthouse. Faithful husband Bill is obsessive and madly devoted to another man’s wife. Bright-eyed Vince is running to escape his troubled past. Ghosts, both real and figurative, stalk the pages of this novel and Stonex leaves it up to us to determine who they are and their intentions in the wider plot.
I loved the imagery and symbolism of this book. The Maiden is the perfect antithesis of what a lighthouse is supposed to represent. For many, they are structures of safety and wonder, dependable in tough times. In this story, The Maiden is a taunting reminder of what has been lost, an immovable monument to the horrors that are exposed throughout the story.
Stonex is an expert in suspense and atmosphere, carrying the narrative safely into the harbour. The reader becomes the only person to find out what truly happened that day – a fly on the wall to everything. This was the perfect way to round out an unexpectedly gut-wrenching read: because can we really trust Stonex’s words? After all, the ending admits to leaving everything up to personal interpretation. So, do we really know what happened?
Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey
Reviewed by Becky Connolly
For any avid Waterstones 'Book of the Month' monitor, this title will be familiar to you: Really Good, Actually was the fiction winner for October 2023, enticing customers with a free coffee if you bought the book (a fantastic offer which I would thoroughly recommend). This book, however, does not need the free coffee to entice you.
Really Good, Actually is told from the perspective of 29-year-old divorcee Maggie: exploring the trials and tribulations of her newly single life following her divorce from her partner of nearly ten years. Tackling the dating world, new activities and missing her cat, Heisey takes us on a chaotic rollercoaster of emotions following the breakdown of the relationship.
Heisey skillfully depicts Maggie’s experience: she takes us from Maggie’s narrative (in the first person, so we are truly immersed in the chaotic inner workings of her mind), through multiple records of her Google searches; Tinder messages; her fantasies and conversations with her therapist. Maggie’s struggle with new-found singledom is remarkably profound and relatable. In the mayhem, Heisey explores how we struggle to adapt following a breakup and how challenging everyday becomes, all through an incredibly witty and humorous lens.
You will laugh, sympathise and ultimately cringe at Maggie, but that’s okay. She makes you cringe in the best possible way because she makes mistakes; she’s hurting and she is, fundamentally, human. What’s more, the Tinder messages make you feel less alone in how strange people truly are on dating apps and ground the book in the stark reality of dating in the digital world. We also get to see Maggie explore her bisexuality. This is a great addition to the story: she represents so many women who know their sexuality but perhaps have never had the chance to act upon it.
Surrounding Maggie is a diverse cast of wonderful characters. She has a strong group of friends, including new friend Amy; Calvin (we all know a Calvin); her therapist and the wonderful support system that is her boss, Merris. These relationships do have their trials and tribulations, exacerbated by Maggie’s not-so-stable state, but they are fundamental in pulling Maggie out to the other side.
Each character is so richly painted, with their own mannerisms, quirks and development arc; making them feel like they’re your friends too. Then, of course, there is her ex-husband Jon. You can’t help but pity Jon towards the end, even if he did steal her cat. I do wish I could have seen more of their relationship in their marriage: but Maggie’s sarcastic explorations of their married life do accurately represent how one would approach their relationship post-breakup.
It is a book packed with sarcasm, humorous anecdotes and many, many mistakes, which makes it such an enjoyable read. It is the kind of book that would get you out of any reading slump, and one that we would thoroughly recommend.