It’s London 1944 and a German bomb is about to hit a Woolworths shop where five young children are shopping with their mums. The first chapter of Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford describes, in harrowing detail, the moment of impact. What would have happened to those five kids if they hadn’t turned to ‘dust’? This is what Spufford want us to imagine in Light Perpetual, a gripping tribute to lives not lived.
The novel follows working class Vernon, Val, Jo, Ben and Alec, as their lives turns this way and that. Some succumb to mental illness, others to right-wing extremism; some have their relationships fall apart while others are saved by them. One dreams of becoming a property millionaire while another of becoming a musician.
Spufford is at his absolute best, I think, when he portrays passion; passion for music in particular. As when the macho, would-be property developer and secret opera afficionado Vern, about to strike a shady deal at a fancy restaurant, is paralysed by the entry of Maria Callas.
He should be launching into this lunchtime’s patiently developed coup de grâce. All the goads of greed and humiliation and flattery have been deployed. It’s time to close. And, somewhere far off, he is still talking. McLeish is nodding. But it is as if Vern has split. A Vern kept locked privately away, a Vern who trembles at beauty…
The novel spans from 1944 to 2009. Alongside our five protagonists we go on a time travel through 1960s-style mental health treatments, the newspaper strikes of the 1980s, the early days of London’s gentrification, the dark days of skin-heads terror and the 2008 crash.
Spufford’s triumph is in keeping the reader interested as he jumps from one story to the next. I often find myself favouring one part over others in books with multiple storylines. Not so here. Within a couple of sentences, you’re back in the life of the next protagonist, propelled on by Spufford’s clever writing and sharp observations.
Spufford shows us what a messy affair life can be. There are no idealised, glorified versions of life in this book which is what makes it so brilliantly good.
A mournful reminder of all young lives lost and the could-have-beens left in the void.
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford is published by Faber and Faber, 336 pages.
Have you read our review of Golden Hill, also by Francis Spufford?