Novels set in and around the Belle Tout lighthouse

22 March 2020

The Light Keeper by Cole Moreton and The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Cherry Radford

Coincidentally, both of these novels are set in the same real-but-fictionalized lighthouse. Both are set in fairly recent times. Furthermore, they were published only a year apart. Indeed, the authors bumped into each other while doing their respective research on location.

What location? If you’re unfamiliar with the south coast of England, it might help to know that Beachy Head is a high chalk cliff notorious as a suicide spot. There are two lighthouses in the vicinity. The Belle Tout lighthouse is on the headland, whereas the Beachy Head Lighthouse is in the sea. Belle Tout was opened in 1834 but had to be decommissioned in 1902 because clifftop fogs sometimes made it invisible. Beachy Head Lighthouse was built as a replacement in 1902 and had lighthouse keepers until 1983, when it was automated. Meanwhile, Belle Tout had a variety of owners and uses. By 1999, it was in danger of falling into the sea due to coastal erosion. So the whole building, foundations and all, was moved further inland using hydraulic equipment. After renovation, the building was opened as a bed-and-breakfast in 2010. A map of the area is included in the hardback edition of The Light Keeper.

In The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, a divorced woman called Imogen lives alone in 2012–2013 in a lighthouse that is clearly a fictionalized version of Belle Tout after its move and renovation. In The Light Keeper, a bereft man known locally as simply The Keeper lives alone in a lighthouse that is clearly a fictionalized version of Belle Tout when it was still teetering on the edge and in need of renovation. The exact time isn’t stated, and only a mention of Sinéad O’Connor gives a clue; if it was after she became famous but before the move, the action is presumably set in the 1990s.

The similarities end abruptly there, as abruptly as a speedway rider laying down his bike to avoid another rider who has fallen over in his path.

In terms of style, Cole Moreton (The Light Keeper) definitely has the edge. Although a debut novelist, he has extensive experience of other forms of writing and has homed in on a distinctive fiction style. Cherry Radford (The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter) is developing as a novelist, but there are knots in the rope that she has used to anchor her style; some transitions from one scene to another aren’t smooth; some characters are hard to recognize when they reappear after having been only vaguely sketched earlier; and the pace doesn’t vary when a protracted plot line comes to a head. At one point, I had moved on two pages before it dawned on me that a significant revelation had been made. In contrast, Cole’s book is well paced with distinctive characters and neat transitions between strands of the plot. What I am about to say might sound trite, but I’ll say it anyway: I particularly liked the shortness of the chapters. I kept reading because I always knew that I was only a few pages away from a logical break point — but then I didn’t want a break anyway.

These novels also differ in terms of narrative arc. In The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, a short walk takes Imogen from her fictionalized version of Belle Tout to the clifftop, from where she can see a fictionalized version of Beachy Head Lighthouse. Her father worked there as a keeper until 1982, when he disappeared into the sea while Imogen was still a child. She’s trying to find out what her father was doing around that time while also pursuing a relationship with a Spanish man she has met online. So some of the action shifts to Madrid while some of the dialog shifts from what passes as normal in electronic messaging to broken English and broken Spanish. Although the plot is simple, I found it quite difficult to follow due to the stylistic shortcomings. Furthermore, I didn’t find the romance very plausible. Overall, I found this novel boring.

The narrative of The Light Keeper is more sophisticated. It has depth, in that it gradually dawns on you that the motivations of some characters for their actions are not what you initially thought. Yet all the machinations are plausible; comparable things happen in real life. I found the strand about fertility technology disturbing. I suspect that it’s meant to be disturbing but not for the reason I have in mind. I further suspect that some people might find other strands of the story disturbing but, again, that’s life. A couple of strands of the plot are satisfactorily resolved near the end. However, the resolution of the main plot right at the end is unexpected — which may or may not be a good thing. Overall, I found this novel absorbing.

Given the location of these novels, it is inevitable that they both make reference to suicide or potential suicide. To avoid plot spoilers, I won’t say what does or does not happen to the vitality of any of the characters in either book. Suffice it to say that this issue plays a minor part in The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter and is handled superficially, whereas it plays a major part in The Light Keeper and is handled sensitively from several perspectives.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter is for people who like unchallenging contemporary romance but not for anyone who gets irritated by the language of social media exchanges or by frequent namechecks for social media companies. The Light Keeper is for people who like fiction that challenges them to consider issues more deeply but not for anyone who wants to avoid confronting issues of life and death. Both books may serve as background reading prior to a stay in the real lighthouse or a visit to its environs.