This time last year, in lockdown, my partner and I decided to work our way through the novels long-listed for the Booker prize. Surprisingly, we both agreed before the announcement of the winner that Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was the best and, even more surprisingly, it won. A few weeks ago I considered the recently announced 2021 long-list: so many presumably good writers I’d never heard of!
I started off with the one writer I’d read before, Kazuo Ishiguro. His book, Klara and the Sun, ventures into science fiction. Klara is an android, an Artificial Friend. Well-to-do young people have AFs who are combination sibling, plaything, and nursemaid, and Klara is chosen by Josie, a fragile adolescent. With extraordinary powers of observation, Klara has learned ‘devotion’ perfectly. She is powered by the sun, which for her seems to take on a kind of religious significance and with an unbelievable naivety, given her observational skills, she believes that the sun lives in a neighbour’s barn. I found this all rather implausible. When Josie goes off to college she glibly says, ‘You’ve been just great, Klara.’ That’s it. This book is said to be about love. If so, it’s a very pessimistic prediction for the near future.
As an antidote I needed to get into the lives of some real people. I hadn’t heard of Mary Lawson, but I picked up her long-listed book, A Town Called Solace. Clara, Mrs Elisabeth Orchard and Liam have each suffered tragedy. We learn very quickly about Clara; her rebellious sister Rose has run away following a row with their mother. At first I thought that this might be a YA novel—the prose is clear and welcoming, but Mrs Orchard’s tragedy of suffering many miscarriages and then falling in love with and abducting a neighbour’s child may be hard to cope with if you haven’t been, or wanted to be a parent. This book was a quick and easy read but left poignant feelings of loss and love.
Then a name on the long-list caught my eye: Francis Spufford. How could you forget the name ‘Spufford’, so comfortingly reminiscent of a Wind in the Willows badger scuttling through the undergrowth? And I had heard him speak in 2017 at the London Review Bookshop near the British Museum.
The first five pages of Light Perpetual were dauntingly difficult to read: a dense description in slow motion of the one ten-thousandth of a second of a bomb explosion. The explosion really happened in a Woolworths store in south-east London one Saturday in November 1944, caused by a German V2 rocket. Children were there with their mothers who were buying scarce saucepans. The description is punctilious: the way that the children are standing when the rocket hits, what happens to the wares and to the building. Then it’s as though the camera goes back to real time. There is ‘a ringing stillness’. Everyone is dead. And the opening section ends, ‘Come dust’.
On his way to work at Goldsmiths College, Francis Spufford walks past a monument to the people killed in that 1944 explosion. Fifteen of the 168 victims were children under the age of eleven and this book is an acknowledgement of the children’s lost chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century. The children in Spufford’s book are fictitious, as is the Borough of Bexford where they live.
The idea of writing ‘what if’ a particular person had lived is not new. I think in particular of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, where we believe for most of the book that Teddy captaining his Hercules bomber survives a perilous World War II mission and we see his ninety-year life right through to his end in a nursing home. But no. We learn in the end that Teddy did the gallant thing. He didn’t abandon his burning plane but gave his parachute to another crew member. Clearly, he didn’t really survive that mission.
A main difference with Light Perpetual is that we trace the ‘what if’ trajectories of five children and rather like the Seven Up series, we visit each child after five and then every fifteen years from 1944. In 1949 all five children are in a singing lesson. They have a very good music teacher and music seems to shape their lives, albeit in very different ways. Jo and Val are twins. The other children aren’t related.
The stories of these children are bound together by a kind of counterpoint that originates in the 1949 Bexford music class and compared to the first section of this book, the regular glimpses into the lives of Jo, Val, Vern, Alec and Ben are seductive and compelling. Spufford has a way of succinctly letting you see the very essence of a character—you get inside their heads, sometimes through their performance of mundane activities such as washing dishes. Ben, who has always been thought of as a bit frail and ‘different’, suffers from schizophrenia. We go through a most poignant and illuminating description of a schizophrenic episode that happens when he is at work as a bus conductor. Years later he is rescued from his desperately lonely existence by the religious Marsha and by 1994 he seems to have found contentment. By 2009, he is on the brink of death, but in a good place with caring people around him. He looks out of his nursing home window and in what seems an ethereal experience, ‘Ben sees the light, and the light is very good.’
The reader turns the page to ‘infinity’, and again we read the words, ‘Come, dust’. I am left with thoughts of Wordsworth: ‘apparelled in celestial light’ and ‘trailing clouds of glory’ and a painting of golden clouds by James Gleeson. What a beautiful tribute to those children who never became adults. So far it’s my favourite from the 2021 long-list.
Jennifer Bryce used to work in educational research and play the oboe. In 2019 her debut novel, Lily Campbell’s Secret was published. She is now working on her second book.