Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2021

Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford

Francis Spufford is the author of The Child That Books Built (2002) which was one of the first, I think, of the books about books that we readers can never resist.  Spufford is a little younger than me, and his reading diverged from mine when he reached adulthood, but—as I can see from the pages in my reading journal from 2003—I loved reading his thoughts about the books we shared, and I disputed his propositions about why in adolescence he wandered into SF instead of taking the same track as me, reading the classics!

Spufford has written a number of books since then, including the intriguing-sounding Red Plenty, Inside the Fifties Soviet Dream which was nominated for The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize (2011); and also Golden Hill (2016) which won a swag of awards, including the Costa Book Award for First Novel (2016), the Desmond Elliott Prize (2017), and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize (2017).  It was also nominated for the  Rathbones Folio Prize (2017).  Light Perpetual is his second or third novel, depending on how one classifies Red Plenty which is apparently a blend of history and fiction.  Light Perpetual, however, is unambiguously fiction.

The novel was inspired by a V2 rocket attack in November 1944 which struck a Woolworths store in New Cross, London and killed 168 people including 33 children.  These V2 rockets were the first long-range guided ballistic missiles, fired from sites in Occupied Europe, and in the last sixth months of the war, they killed nearly 3000 civilians and injured many more.  In Light Perpetual, Spufford imagines the lives that five of the child victims might have had. This is the blurb:

1944. It’s a Saturday lunchtime on Bexford High Street. The Woolworths has a new delivery of aluminium saucepans, and a crowd has gathered to see the first new metal in a long time. Everything else has been melted down for the war effort.

An instant later, the crowd is gone. Incinerated. Atomised.

Among that crowd were five little children. What future did they lose? The only way to know is ‘to let run some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be. still may be’.

Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, Light Perpetual is a story of the everyday, the miraculous and the everlasting – a sweeping and intimate celebration of the gift of life.

The title comes from the Prayer for the Dead:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

The light that Spufford shines on the five invented children of his novel, is to tell the stories of the lives that might have been led.  He starts with the bomb that didn’t kill them in 1944.  Then there are interlocking vignettes about Alec, Vern, Jo, Val and Ben five years later in 1949, 15 years later in 1964, a further 15 years later in 1979, and then 30 years after that, taking them into their seventies in 2009.

Like others who survived the unprecedented bombing of cities in WW2, Spufford’s characters go on to lead lives that are quite ordinary, and the snapshots of these lives at intervals are a bit like episodes of the documentary series 7-Up but without the class consciousness that featured in the TV programs. It follows the five through childhood, adolescence, adulthood and ageing amid the joys and woes of working class life.  It traces marriage, divorce and blended families in an abbreviated social history of England, depicting social mobility along with careers aborted or advanced by technological and political change.

BEWARE: SOME SPOILERS

Some of it, alas, was underwhelming.  Spufford piles on the detail, sometimes to excess, and in the middle third of the novel, the momentum falters. Jo, for example, has an abortive career as a songwriter and rock musician, and the pages and pages about the music in her head as she composes are tiresome:

Round and round she goes, and her intuitions of tune begin to take some more shape and to declare themselves.  Something is forming: a structure for the verses (three lines: two short, one double-long) that goes Dee-dee dee DEE, Dee-dee dee DEE-ee, Dee dee-dee dee dee DEE dee dee dee-dee Dee-ee. And a chorus, higher, for which three little sets of call and response will make a wistful, tentative, suspended kind of sound, at least the first time she sings through it, but which can then fill out with a stronger push of mournful feeling on the next visit, before soaring out (both times) into a line that will use her full voice.  (p.133, this is followed by some more Dee-de-dee-dees, but I haven’t got the patience to type them all out.)

The same technique, however, is utterly compelling in the episode where Val, out of gaol after being convicted as an accessory to the brutal crime committed by her skinhead boyfriend, is redeemed by her work as a volunteer telephone counsellor and has a young caller who is suicidal.  Likewise unputdownable is the episode that reveals the innermost thoughts of Ben and his struggle to master the mental illness that torments him, but subsequent pages and pages of god-bothering praise at Marsha’s church are beyond tedious.

The latter part of the book is the most interesting.  Vern, for example, is not a nice man.  He gets his start on the social mobility ladder through property development, conning a dopey but moneyed young football star into guaranteeing his dubious loans.  Of course it all falls apart as the political tides rise and fall and he crashes from a lavish lifestyle into poverty.  There’s grim poetic justice in the way his daughter bullies him into a joyless diet and her reward for him ‘being good’ is a ticket to a football match.  Vern is a man who really, really loves opera, and the football is a kind of well-meant torture for him.  I confess, I did feel sorry for him then.

By late in life, Alec has by his own estimation, failed his union workmates, his marriage and then his school.  A bright boy back in 1949, he went into the printing trade and eventually fought and lost that long and bitter battle in Fleet Street.  He retrained as a teacher, and improbably, rose quickly to become principal because his union background had given him the skills needed to survive the endless applications for grants so necessary for an inner London school.  But by 2009 the tides have turned again and some kind of privatisation is going on—a bit of a mystery to those of us not paying attention to education matters on the other side of the world but clearly devastating for the survival of the school.  Alec, however, has to leave it to a successor to sort out.  He’s past retirement age, and there are matters in his personal life where he also has to stand aside and let the next generation deal with it.

Despite the loss of narrative tension in the middle bits, most of the novel is an absorbing chronicle of London life, and I enjoyed it.

But it seems to me that the book would be much the same without its striking first chapter, about something that didn’t happen.  It hinted at some kind of miracle, which turned out to be mundane.  Unless the point is that all life is some kind of miracle, I suppose.

Author: Francis Spufford
Title: Light Perpetual
Publisher: Faber, 2021
ISBN:9780571368730
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

 


Responses

  1. I’ve read a few reviews of this novel, and still don’t feel inclined to read it – maybe because there’s still so much still on the shelves waiting.

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    • I admit that there were a couple of times when I felt that I could put it aside and not care. But overall, it’s interesting reading, though probably one that’s more appealing for a certain generation than younger readers.

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  2. I am tempted. I loved ‘The Child that Books Built’ and I enjoyed ‘Golden Hill’.

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  3. I’ve read a couple of Spuffords (Red Plenty and Child, both of which I loved) so I don’t know why I haven’t yet picked up my copy of Golden Hill). I’m intrigued by this – I get the sense that he writes beautifully but the book doesn’t necessarily hang together…

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    • I would say that’s true. He is really good at capturing a moment, but I think he let the structure dictate the plot and in places it’s a bit awkward.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I was wondering about this one. I have Golden Hill on my TBR pile, so I’ll start with that & see what happens :-)

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  5. Like you, I really enjoyed his book about books; it does seem, to my memory as well, to have been one of the early pleasures in that kind of reading memoir. Unlike you, I’ve never gotten to his fiction, although I usually hear good things. I suspect that his attention to detail and his love of narrative would satisfy me as a reader…I just keep reading OTHER books. :)

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  6. ‘Golden Hill’ was my book of the year in 2017, and I was really looking forward to ‘Light Perpetual’. However the premise of ‘Light Perpetual’, the lives these children who were killed in the Woolworths bombing could have had, seemed a little two obvious and unoriginal. As I read a bit further, it seemed a paean to London without any real depth. Now I am on page 36 and am on the verge of giving up on it. Your review is helping me decide.

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    • Yes, it’s strange, it should have worked, and it didn’t, well, not for me anyway.
      For me, it’s usually fatal if I’m tempted to stop reading and find other opinions about a book…

      Liked by 1 person


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