At the end of his new novel, “Light Perpetual,” Francis Spufford describes how he was inspired by a London plaque:
[F]or the last twelve years, I've been walking to work at Goldsmiths College past a plaque commemorating the 1944 V-2 attack on the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths. Of the 168 people who died, fifteen were aged eleven or under. The novel is partly written in memory of those South London children, and their lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century.
Out of his contemplative pauses in front of that plaque, Spufford has created a resonant novel about what "might have been" for five young casualties of war, as well as a God's-eye meditation on mutability and loss.
“Light Perpetual” opens with a slow motion reimagining of the V-2 rocket falling through that Woolworths on that long-ago Saturday. The lunchtime crowd, which has gathered to see a new delivery of aluminum saucepans (a rarity during the war), is instantaneously transformed into "a dome of debris." Spufford's omniscient narrator ticks off some of the cloud's component parts: "Knitting Patterns. ... Wooden table. Pans. Much-darned brown worsted hand-me-down served-three-siblings horned-buttoned winter coat. Skin. Bone."
Spufford checks in on his characters at intervals of 15 years, beginning with their deaths in 1944 and ending in 2009 when the "children" are about 70. This plot structure can sound formulaic, plodding even. And, certainly, the pitfalls of sentimentality are many in a story that imagines the lives that five invented dead children might have led.
But Spufford avoids those pitfalls and as he moves his children through their imagined lives they become so much more than mere reverent icons. For instance, the class bully, Vernon, dubbed "Vermin" by his classmates, grows into a crooked property developer; another, more delicate child named Ben grows up to hold down jobs as a kitchen porter and bus conductor; he also has to be institutionalized for a time for schizophrenia and persistent nightmares of cannibalism.
Alec, who from the get-go, is one of the most compelling of the children, must surrender his dreams of going to university because of his father's early death. Alec marries young, becomes a leader in his printer's union, and, at bedtime, devours heavy tomes like Robert Tressell's 1914 Socialist classic, “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.“
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Even to tick off these characters and their stories in this fashion renders them reductive in a way that Spufford never does. He's such a beautiful writer, casually stunning in his language and perceptions. Here, for instance, Spufford captures the middle-aged Alec's thoughts after an argument with his teenaged son:
Everyone knows that parenthood changes you: but [Alec had] thought that meant the rearrangement that comes at the beginning of it, when you learn that your life is going to be curled protectively around the kids. He doesn't know what to do with this recent, new rage, where you feel the ... hopes and expectations you've had for them all this time start to shrivel and unpick, ... where the story of their lives you've been telling yourself, with the chances you'd've liked, and a step up you'd've been glad to take, turns out to be nothing like their own story of themselves.
Along with incisively describing the progression — and setbacks — of his fictional children's lives, Spufford conjures up an impressionistic history of six decades of London life. Here's Jo who grows up to become a member of a "girl group" called the Tearaways during the Swinging '60s. Spufford describes Jo standing next to a Beatles knock-off band in the wings of the Pelican Club, listening to an older blues musician. In a few quick sentences, Spufford nails the era's signature style and sexism:
She looks good tonight, she knows she does: the Tearaways have an Honor-Blackman-in-The-Avengers thing going, and are all wearing tight black sweaters, tight black trousers and boots with spike heels. ... But right now, she's girl-furniture as far as these whispering oblivious boys are concerned. They're locked in the serious business of male-to-male musical adoration.
Again and again, Spufford draws us readers into the mundane particularity of his maturing characters' lives and, again and again, we readers are jolted by the awareness that those five futures were cut short in 1944. In resurrecting lives that never were, “Light Perpetual” is a miracle, not only of art, but of encompassing empathy. The novel becomes not only about the terribly brief lives of these five fictional children, but of the finitude that bounds all the living and the dead.
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