Book review: Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
In a bold work of fiction, Spufford chooses five child victims of a real WWII bombing and gives them full lives
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images
You “cannot second-guess” Francis Spufford, said Kate Kellaway in The Observer. After making his name as an “elegant writer of non-fiction”, in his early 50s he published his first novel, Golden Hill – a work of “exuberant virtuosity” about an English chancer in 18th century Manhattan. Five years later, he has produced another “brilliant” work of fiction – and one that, if anything, is “even bolder”.
Light Perpetual begins in November 1944, with a V2 bomb falling on a south London branch of Woolworths, said Claire Allfree in the London Evening Standard. This event was real – it killed 168 people – but in a “glorious act of literary resurrection”, Spufford imagines five of the child victims surviving and going on to lead full lives. Over 65 years, he tracks his “chosen five” – Alec, Jo, Vernon, Ben and Valerie – at 15-year intervals, “dropping in on them at home, at work, with lovers and with children”.
None of Spufford’s characters prove to be exceptional, said Lucasta Miller in The Spectator. Instead, they’re “transfigured by their very ordinariness”. One becomes a typesetter at The Times; another tries to make it big as a folk singer, but is held back by her lack of confidence.
Perhaps most moving of all is the story of Ben, whom we first see “hoisted on to his father’s shoulders at a Millwall game”, and whom we next meet “in a psychiatric hospital, dosed up on Largactil”, said Alex Preston in the Financial Times. As he slowly recovers, “the reader cheers him all the way”. In “beautifully accurate”, unshowy prose, Spufford wrings extraordinary “emotion and drama” from the everyday experiences of his protagonists.
Faber & Faber 336pp £16.99; The Week bookshop £13.99
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