For Longfellow, it was “steadfast, serene, immovable, the same, year after year, through all the silent night”. For Edward Hopper, it represented fortitude and loneliness. For Virginia Woolf, it was, among other things, a sign of desires and destinations that can remain unreachable.
Artists and writers have depicted lighthouses in many ways over the years. In two new novels, they can be seen as laboratories to dissect the human condition, both within domestic walls and outside them.
In Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters, the focus is on the outcome of goings-on between a lighthouse keeper and his assistants in a claustrophobic space. And in Karen Jennings’s Booker-longlisted An Island, a lighthouse is the backdrop to an uneasy alliance between a lighthouse keeper and a new arrival.
The Lamplighters is based on an actual incident that occurred in a lighthouse off the coast of north-western Scotland in 1900. A boat’s crew found that the three keepers within had inexplicably vanished. The doors were firmly shut, the kitchen table had been laid for a meal, and other discoveries included inconsistent logbook entries and stopped clocks.
Stonex shifts the setting of this maritime locked-room mystery to a sea tower in Cornwall, and the time period to the 1970s, a period of increased social mobility on the eve of automation. This move allows her to show individuals on the cusp of change and incorporate those from different classes.
It’s evident that there’s been plenty of research into the lives of those in lighthouses. Many details emerge in the telling, from “banana bunks” curved to fit the walls to the way meals are prepared in closed spaces. Overall, “they’re an abnormal breed, lighthouse keepers, obsessed by the intricacies of domestic detail, polishing, tidying, buffing; a lighthouse is the cleanest place you’ll ever set foot”.
The heart of The Lamplighters is the shifting relationship between the three men in the lighthouse, but there’s a lot that occurs on the mainland, too. The book alternates between 1972, when they vanished, and 1992, when a novelist, in the words of a news report, “plans to discover the truth behind one of the greatest maritime mysteries of our age”.
He sets out to speak to the people left behind, chiefly the wives. The novel captures their reactions and overlapping lives in a variety of literary modes: newspaper clippings, letters, and first and third person narration.
As The Lamplighters moves towards its conclusion, secrets and lies are revealed, and supernatural elements are added to the mix. It’s a lot more than a mystery novel, however, dwelling as it does on domestic disharmony, attitudes of the time, and life after loss.
Much of this is extremely well done. It has to be said, though, that there’s a surfeit of characters, with only slight tonal variations in their voices. This, combined with the novel’s long, slow burn, makes one wish it was tauter.
One can’t make the same grumble about Karen Jennings’s An Island. This powerful, slim novel is set off the coast of an unnamed African country and explores how colonial history and political turbulence cause deep-seated damage to individual lives.
It deals with a 70-year-old man who has decided to spend the rest of his days as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island, caring for his small vegetable patch with only some chickens for company. The lighthouse is a weather-beaten sentinel and lonely witness to the events spread over four days in the novel.
In the more than two decades he has spent here, the lighthouse keeper has seen quite a few corpses washed up on shore. One morning, he discovers a refugee who has barely managed to survive. He takes him into his cottage and a fraught dependence arises between the two, despite not being able to understand each other’s languages.
This sparks off long-buried memories, “things best forgotten now approaching as steadily as waves approach the shore”. Once, he recalls, the country had been the property of colonists; after their departure, a new president proclaims: “This is what Africa can be! This is what Africa is!”
That rosy dawn, “crisp with promises”, gives way to a repressive dictatorship. “Already, in the capital, the president-elect had ordered a statue and a fountain, was drawing up plans for his new home. While down below, in the rubble, people were scrabbling as they had always done.”
The lighthouse keeper is drawn to protest movements and to a woman activist; both activities end in despair and he chooses self-imposed exile. Now, with the refugee in his life, he has to come to grips with what he has lost and gained, and whether it was worth it after all.
Jennings’s prose can be spare and Coetzee-like in depicting the actions of the rulers and reactions of the ruled. Allegorical and realistic elements enhance this, from the fate of the chickens to the state of the lighthouse. The structure had been white at the time of the country’s independence but was now “flaking, dull, with orange swathes where the metal railing of the gallery had rusted”.Both novels, in very different ways, speak of how people come together and the centrifugal forces that pull them apart. As Virginia Woolf once put it, lighthouses are suggestive signifiers of human isolation as well as our connectedness to each other.