Light Perpetual

Francis Spufford

Faber & Faber, £16.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

The opening pages of Francis Spufford’s second novel are the stuff of nightmares: a bone-chilling recreation of the moment a German rocket hits a Woolworth’s store in London during the Second World War. As a handful of mothers and youngsters gather around a display of saucepans, Spufford unfurls the nanoseconds in which the tip of the rocket pierces the roof, before coming into the victims’ sight – not that they would have had time to register it – and consigning them instantly to oblivion.

Spufford reflects: “Matter has its smallest, finite subdivisions. Times does not. One ten-thousandth of a second is a fat volume of time, with onion-skin pages uncountable.” A fraction of a second contains infinity, otherwise the concept is meaningless. And as Light Perpetual is at pains to show, life is simultaneously random, pointless and full of meaning, even if it eludes those of us in the middle of it.

This gripping, effulgent tale was inspired by the bombing of Woolworth’s in Deptford in 1944. Spufford writes in his acknowledgements that, “Of the 168 people who died, 15 were aged 11 or under. Light Perpetual is partly written in memory of those South London children, and their lost chance to experience the rest of the 20th century.”

What follows is based on a fictional fivesome who were in primary school when the bomb exploded around them. Careful as a restorer with a broken Ming vase, Spufford returns these imaginary figures to the world, granting them the long and full stories they ought to have enjoyed.

Tracing the lives of Ben, Vern, Alec and the sisters Jo and Val, jumping in at various points – five years on from 1944, 20 years, 50 and so on – he creates characters whose multifarious doings are unique to them, yet also emblematic of their era. There is Jo, a talented singer who goes to Los Angeles with a London rock band, and dreams of making it big. Her sister Val, by comparison, is bewitched by a skinhead, which leads her to the depths of racist depravity. Ben is a troubled individual, haunted by the thought of bones – a nod, perhaps, to the scene in which he originally perished – and takes half a lifetime to find himself. Vern – nicknamed Vermin by his classmates – is an opportunist, his fortunes rising and falling in line with the rampant greed and rollercoaster fortunes of British capitalism; yet his love of opera offers hints of a deeper man, who has been both a vector and a victim of the boom economy.

And then there’s Alec, whose pendulum-swinging career, from hot metal typesetter to secondary school headteacher, encapsulates the swiftly changing labour market, as technology overtakes individuals. All Spufford’s characters are drawn in such detail you have no option but to become immersed in their doings. Even so, Alec feels most keenly felt and understood, and his is the strand on which the story is most securely threaded.

By the time 65 years have passed, this glimpse of the what-if has taken on a personality of its own. It does not feel made-up, but true. The generosity of Spufford’s vision, the combined minutiae and profundity of what he reveals about each of his characters, adds up to what fiction is intended to do: revealing how others live, making links between the ordinary and the intangible, and emphasising the seriousness of this business into which we are all born. By turns droll, sorrowful, heart-breaking and filled with love and hope, this act of rewriting history is, Spufford knows, an impossible task: “That’s time for you. It breaks things up. It scatters them. It cannot be run backwards, to summon the dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea.”

Yet what is a novel’s purpose if not to try?