The Red Rocks of Eddystone by Fred Majdalany, book of a lifetime: Imagination and endurance

Fred Majdalany's book is one of the great classic stories of the sea

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The Independent Culture

Since the age of five, I've looked out for it. Seen it out there on the Cornish horizon, 12 miles south-east of Looe harbour: a bright, hypnotic pulse between dark sky and sea – the famous lighthouse known as the Eddystone.

What I didn't know until recently was that it was the reef on which it stood that was called Eddystone; a mass of granite rock that rises steeply from the bed of the English Channel and breaks surface in open water except at high tide. A reef fully exposed to the full force of Atlantic weather systems, with tidal streams that do not conform to lunar tides, that creates violent waves and curtains of spray even when the sea beyond lays calm.

And neither did I know that the marker that lit the nightly landscape of my childhood was the fourth structure to be built on the reef, completed in 1882 by James Douglass and still standing today. I knew none of this. Not until I rescued Fred Majdalany's book from a forlorn bookshop window, and embarked on, what I believe to be, one of the great classic stories of the sea.

The Red Rocks of Eddystone is about imagination and endurance; a desire to put a light on a rock that had wrecked hundreds of ships and claimed thousands of lives. Set across two centuries, it's about four lighthouses and the men that built them, and reads more like fiction than fact. It begins in 1698, with Winstanley's Tower; the first lighthouse to be built on a small rock in open sea, a wooden structure that survived five years of Atlantic assault, before being washed away with its creator in the Great Storm of 1703.

The promise of the lighthouse has always been a romantic one: a paradoxical life of hermit solitude, adrift yet anchored in the fiercest of seas. Majdalany captures this vision beautifully. His prose is joyous, sodden with tension and immediacy, as if he were a witness on that battered rock to the succession of lights that gave warning and position to ships throughout the night. And he draws us into this world with effortless storytelling. I had no intention of writing about a lighthouse in my new book, but after reading The Red Rocks of Eddystone, my imagination flared, and I had to. The story's just too good not to tell.

'A Year of Marvellous Ways' by Sarah Winman is published by Tinder Press (£16.99) on 18 June

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