(I read Francis Spufford’s much-anticipated new novel Light Perpetual this month via #NetGalley.)
In the novels’s opening chapter, t+0: 1944, the narrative details an imagined rocket attack in chilling, slow-motion detail, as it strikes and instantly kills five children, out shopping in South London on an ordinary Saturday with their families: five-year-olds Alec, Vern, Ben and twins Jo and Val. The vivid unspooling of the catastrophe brought to mind the opening story in Mark Haddon’s powerful short story The Pier Falls in its sense of dispassionate inevitability.
“It cannot be run backwards, to summon the dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea. Once sundered, forever sundered. Once scattered, forever scattered. It’s irreversible.”
Nevertheless, fiction does have the power to rewind time, and Spufford recreates a future for his tragically snuffed-out characters. This deeply humane novel conjures those children up with the incantatory “Come, other chances. Come, unsounded deep. Come, undivided light. Come, dust.”
We skip forward in time by five years, and the children – untouched – are now 10. We learn things about these normal working class children that will stay with them throughout their lives: whether it’s a love of music, a keen intelligence, or a searing sensitivity.
We revisit Alec, Vern, Ben, Jo and Val at intervals, a bit like the ’60s TV series 7 Up, as we watch the ways their lives diverge, their sadnesses and successes, their bad and good decisions, and the way those decisions influence the course of their lives, however outwardly mundane they may be.
The evocation of each decade of the latter part of the 20th century is a feat of pastiche, which, if it occasionally lapses into cliché, is counterpointed by its pinpoint accuracy.
I found sensitive Ben most vividly drawn, diagnosed at a young age with schizophrenia, whose nightmare years are balanced by a period of domestic contentment. This part of the book gives value to the notion of perseverance through the darkest of times, in the hope of a brighter future: and although it could easily seem trite, Ben’s story is so well-handled that it feels genuinely wise and hopeful.
This a deeply humane novel, with light a reoccurring motif, and with a whiff of benevolent religiosity. However, the prose is spiritual rather than hectoring, and at its best both illuminating and luminous. The book opens with the words “the light” – in that case the terrifying, destructive light of the murderous rocket attack – and it closes, too, with light: “The grass grows bright with ordinary light … and the light is very good“.
With its opening pages awash with wish fulfilment and second chances, there are obvious thematic parallels with Kate Atkinson’s instant classic Life after Life, as well as Ian McEwan’s canon-fodder Atonement, but Light Perpetual is far from derivative and easily holds its ground next to those two novels.
In 1944 a V-2 rocket killed 168 people in a branch of Woolworths on New Cross Road in London; 15 of the dead were younger than 11. Light Perpetual does not attempt to unearth or reimagine the histories or thwarted futures of those real children, but the author acknowledges that the novel is “partly written in memory of those South London children, and their lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century“.
Frances Spufford has written one previous, extremely well-received novel, the multi-prize-winning work of historical fiction Golden Hill, as well as some diverse works of non-fiction: The Child that Books Built (about his childhood love of reading), Unapologetic (about his Christian faith) and Red Plenty (about the USSR in the 1950s). This new work may be his best yet.