The Lighthouse Witches by C J Cooke
There is something atmospheric about novels set on the coast, and with a deserted lighthouse at the centre of a story this book is extremely descriptive of supernatural sightings and events. Told in at least three time frames, this novel evokes a sense of the brutality of the treatment of women suspected to be witches in past times, an evil act which has reverberated throughout the history of the area over generations. As the years have passed, children have been seen who have no reason to be there, and people have vanished. This book does not run in a linear way throughout the disturbing history of the island to the present day; it features Liv’s first person account of her arrival in the area in 1998, the tale of Sapphire’s experiences of the same events, and Luna’s strange discoveries in 2021. There are also accounts of an older time when women of the area were taken up for alleged witchcraft and grievously treated. There is real terror in some of these passages, as the ill treatment of women is recalled.
The focus of much of the novel is the disappearance of a family of four, as a mother and three daughters recently arrived are nowhere to be seen. This is a strange and affecting book with real depth and many layers of puzzles, a really complex book that I was interested to have the opportunity to read and review.
After a brief piece about the execution of two women, we then begin Liv’s account from 1998 of her arrival on the Black Isle in Scotland with her three daughters. She has just received a commission to paint a mural in a lighthouse, which rejoices in the name of “The Longing”. She has just bundled the girls into a car and driven from southern England, with precious few belongings and a desire to flee. Her first sight of the lighthouse is suitably unnerving; with a dodgy staircase, battered walls with scraped plaster and inches of filthy water. Despite this a local woman, Isla, remains optimistic that everything is possible, and sets in motion the painting project for the absent Mr Roberts. As the relationship between Liv and the teenage Sapphire worsens, the younger girls begin to pick up an atmosphere of fearsome uncertainty. A written account of women’s treatment and fate from some centuries before begins to interweave with the contemporary accounts of unexplainable experiences. In 2021 a pregnant Luna makes some stunning discoveries which draw her mind back to what she may remember from the 1990s, and it seems impossible to understand the full legacy of curses uttered in extreme circumstances.
This novel represents a full gothic reading experience of a fearsome quality, and has much to say about the what has happened to women through the centuries in what is an isolated community. The plot is complex, and the organisation of the different time frames is a little confusing. The relationship between mothers and daughters is well examined, as the restless Sapphire has many of the same issues experienced by teenagers who have not been uprooted from their friends, school and home, having suffered an unacknowledged loss. This is not an easy read, but for sheer atmosphere and impact it is unique.