Lives Lost, Lives Reimagined

The Second World War is, without a doubt, one of the darkest moments of contemporary history. It has caused widespread devastation across the world and left millions either dead or traumatized. Decades later, its memories remain fresh in the minds of many, so much so that it has become a recurring theme in literary pieces from different parts of the world. After all, men start wars while writers write war novels. In these works, we read of the experiences of the comfort women of Asia. We also read of the horrors in the concentration camps experienced by the Jews, Gypsies, and other groups of people the Nazi regime perceived as threats to them. We read of how soldiers perished at the frontlines, of houses being pulverized by bombs dropped from the skies, and of women and children being indiscriminately killed or raped or tortured. It was a grim portrait of the inhumanity that resides in the recesses of our hearts.

One of the most damaged members of society was the children. At a young age, they witnessed death, violence, and widespread damage, images that a young child, in an ideal world, should not witness. Many have perished and some were able to make it through. However, those who survived are mortally wounded, forever haunted by the wickedness of men they have witnessed. In recent years, there is an uptick in the number of books that captured their stories. Some of these moving novels include Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight. British writer and historian Francis Spufford’s latest novel, Light Perpetual, published in 2021, trudged the same path.

After five years of intense warfare that has swept Europe and Asia, the Second World War was finally approaching its final stages. However, the gunfighting and the airstrikes have not relented. In the capital of the United Kingdom, the offensive has not slowed down. One Saturday in November 1944, at lunchtime, one of the German V2 rockets struck Woolworths, a department store on Lambert Street in the fictional south London borough of Bexford. The store, including the structure within its immediate vicinity, were incinerated and reduced to dust. Everyone, including the daily shoppers, perished: “The moving thread of combustion, all combustion done, becomes a blast wave pushing on and out in the same directions, driven by the pressure of the livid gas behind. And what it touches, it breaks. A spasm of detonation, of dislocation, passes through every solid thing, shattering it to fragments that then accelerate outward themselves at the forefront of the wave.” It was, to say the least, a grisly sight.

“The bride and groom are sitting up at the top end, she in cream silk with eyelashes the size of escaped caterpillars, he hollow-eyed and the worse for wear from his stag night, but both grinning helplessly, the way you do; both shining with the astonishment of being, themselves, this moment, standing on the magic pivot, the trampoline of transformation, where your life is being changed and for once you know it. Right then, right there, as you feel the dizzy hilarious bliss of it, the change is underway.”

~ Francis Spufford, Light Perpetual

The rocket made no exceptions. Among those who perished are children, including Jo and her sister Valerie (“Val”), Alec, Ben, and Vernon (“Vern”), too young to understand the devastation that surrounded them. But what if the rocket missed its target because of a mechanical error or “a hiccup in fuel deliveries? What if instead of perishing, these five children managed to survive and were all given a chance to live their lives to their full potential? It was on this premise, “some other version of the reel of time”, that Spufford built his latest novel on. The five children were resurrected in a parallel universe. Spufford then proceeds to map out the rest of their (reimagined) lives. He provided intimate snapshots of important moments in their lives. After the vivid description of the rocket exploding, the story picked up five years later, in 1949 when the readers meet the five children studying at the local primary school.

The children were either singing in class or attending a football match, all activities that are seemingly normal. Their primary school years provided a glimpse of their personalities. Each of the five children has his or her distinct personality and it is these personalities that manifested in their younger years that would also dictate the rest of their lives. Val, for instance, had an obsession with boys. This would dictate how her life will develop; it was also a source of her heartaches. Jo and Vern, on the other hand, loved music. It turned into Jo’s passion while it became a source of comfort for Vern. Vern was also a notorious school bully. Of the five, Alec was the most mischievous, the class clown with the gift for persuasion. Meanwhile, Ben was the most delicate, the most troubled. Despite the contrasts in their natures, personalities, and interests, they were all your typical children.

The story then leaps forward fifteen years later as it slowly inches towards 2009. The paths of the five children have diverged as each pursued their own calling, with the story capturing moments – one day to be more specific – of their lives separated by intervals of fifteen years, i.e. 1949, 1964, 1979, 1994, and 2009. They started shedding vestiges of their childhood as they enter uncharted territories. As the story and the time moved forward, we read of their plights and their concerns as they turn into adults and navigate the complicated world. Spufford deftly made the readers inhabit the characters’ interiors through an absorbing third-person narration. We read of the troubles sisters Val and Jo encountered in their relationships with men. Jo, a singer-songwriter, was in a relationship with a rockstar while Val was with a racist, fascist thug.

Meanwhile, Vern was a property developer. However, he was no ordinary developer. The passage of time, it seemed, had not changed him. Once dubbed “Vermin”, he was a crooked developer who shamelessly profited from gentrifying Georgian houses: “selling back to people a sanitized, touristic version of the grimy old city.” Of the five characters, Ben and Alec were perhaps the most compelling. The death of his father prevented him from pursuing his dream of going to university but he did not let it deter his other dreams His persistence, cunning, and his love for words earned him a job as a typesetter at the Times. Ben, on the other hand, held menial jobs such as a kitchen porter and a bus conductor, all the while contending with occasional bouts of schizophrenia.

“But if the different bits and pieces of his life, rising, lofted as if by a bubble of force from below, are arranged in a messy spiral of hours and years, then mightn’t it be the case, mightn’t there be a place, mightn’t there be an angle, from which you could see the whole accidental mass composing, just from that angle, into some momentary order you could never have noticed at the time? Mightn’t there be a line of sight, not ours, from which the seeming cloud of debris of our days, no more in order than (say) the shredded particles riding the wavefront of an explosion, prove to align?

~ Francis Spufford, Light Perpetual

Spufford’s second novel was inspired by an actual event. The idea sprouted after walking down London’s New Cross Road. On his way to Goldsmiths College where he works as a professor, he passed by a branch of Iceland. In the area is a plaque commemorating the death of 168 individuals who perished after a German V2 rocket fell on what was then a Woolworth department store at about 12:26 on November 25, 1944, a busy Saturday shopping day. Among those who perished are children. Passing by this plaque daily on his way to work, the idea of imagining an alternate future for those who perished took roots, the result of which was Light Perpetual. History was a recurring theme and, in Spufford’s alternate universe, time flowed fluidly. He deftly steered the narrative by magnifying seminal historical events as captured in vignettes in the characters’ lives.

The jumps in time emphasized the changes taking place in society post-Second World War. On the backdrop, Spufford astutely painted the portrait of the changes that have shaped London. He effectively conjured six decades of London life, from the mundane to the political to the social. It was a vivid sketch of London life, rife with rich cultural touchstones. In one part, details of a football match rendered the story a domestic atmosphere. This is contrasted by refinement found in the love of the opera. The music scene and other details of London were vividly captured by the novel. There were references to literary masterpieces such as Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The book had far greater implications as it subtly underscored the rise of political activism, particularly in Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain.

But while the novel was steeped in history, it also grappled with several subjects that remain seminal in the context of the contemporary. We read of toxic and traumatic relationships and how they adversely affect our mental landscapes. Mental health was a prevalent subject that reverberated throughout the story, with Ben its main representation. We also read of another character’s mental struggles that ultimately led to him contacting a suicide hotline. On top of these timely subjects, various domestic themes were grappled with as well in the novel, including racism, classism, family disputes, and addiction. Bulimia and domestic abuse were also woven into the novel’s rich tapestry.

The novel’s fine elements were woven together by Spufford’s writing. It was a combination of both lyrical and descriptive. The descriptive quality made the details of changes occurring all over the place come alive. The superb descriptions evoked the atmospheres prevalent in the time periods captured by the story, so much so that scenes pop out of every page, and the smells of the most mundane objects invade the olfactory senses. Meanwhile, the lyrical quality made the story flow. Both complemented each other very well. His writing also appealed to the proverbial heartstrings.

An idea is in his head, the mercury consenting to be chased slowly to a standstill. Who knows if it’s true. But if the different bits and pieces of his life, rising, lofted as if by a bubble of force from below, are arranged in a messy spiral of hours and years, then mightn’t it be the case, mightn’t there be a place, mightn’t there be an angle, from which you could see the whole accidental mass composing, just from that angle, into some momentary order you could never have noticed at the time? Mightn’t there be a line of sight, not ours, from which the seeming cloud of debris of our days, no more in order than the shredded particles riding the wavefront of an explosion, prove to align?

~ Francis Spufford, Light Perpetual

The novel was so engrossing that it took some time for its flaws to float to the surface. For a novel exploring alternative universes, the lack of chapters exploring the other reality after the children’s death leaves room for dissatisfaction. The what-if, which was the initial premise of the novel, was not addressed. There was no comparison and in the end, the novel comes across as experimental, perhaps even gimmicky. The time elements also weighed on the reading experience. Rather than letting the stories take their natural course and allowing the readers some freedom, the time intervals limited the reading experience. The glaring absence of character diversity and references to seminal historical events that defined the second half of the 20th century leave too to be desired.

Longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Light Perpetual is an evocative and richly imagined novel about the lives lost due to the war. It was a subtle reminder that the war caused massive deaths, among them children. It was also the story of redemption. Those who did great were rewarded while the wicked were punished in due time. The novel touched base with several timely and relevant subjects such as addiction, domestic abuse, mental health, and racism. The mundane also provided a great fabric upon which to paint the novel, grounding the story and making it evoke empathy. Family dynamics, domestic abuse, and unhealthy relationships made it relatable. Spufford, a fluent and skilled writer, has captured the changes taking place all over, with London the microcosm of these changes. All of these were vividly captured in Light Perpetual.

“People say the world gets smaller when you’re dying: but there it still is, as astonishingly much of it as ever. It’s you who shrinks. Or you who can grasp the world less, who can take hold of less and less of it, until you’re only peeping at one burning-bright corner of the whole immense fabric. And then not even that.”

~ Francis Spufford, Light Perpetual
Rating

58%

Characters (30%) – 19%
Plot (30%) – 
14%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
8%

It was while researching for books to include in my 2021 Books I Look Forward to List that I first came across Francis Spufford and his latest novel, Light Perpetual; it was part of several similar Most Anticipated 2021 Releases lists. There was something about the book that reeled me in. The book takes roots in the Second World War and it is a work of historical fiction that was the biggest drawer for me. When I learned it was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, I was even more excited to read the book. While the book missed out on the shortlist, I was happy to be able to obtain a copy of the book before the announcement of the winner – Damon Galgut’s The Promise. However, my excitement for the book waned once I started reading it. The premise, on its own, was promising. The plights of children during the Second World War have been a subject that I have encountered repeatedly in my recent reads and it seems that Light Perpetual would continue that tradition. While I appreciated the message and the “what could have been” scenarios, I feel like the book fell short on the execution. It was your conventional story and, at times, I have to keep on going back to the start and remind myself that the characters were not supposed to live beyond November 1944. Despite this, I am interested to read Spufford’s debut novel, if only to give me a better perspective of his prose.

Book Specs

Author: Francis Spufford
Publisher: Faber & Faber Limited
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 323
Genre: Historical, Literary

Synopsis

November 1944. A German rocket strikes London and five young lives are atomised in an instant.

November 1944. That rocket never lands. A single second in time is altered and five young lives go on – to experience all the unimaginable changes of the twentieth century.

Because maybe there are always other futures. Other chances.

Light Perpetual is a story of the everyday, the miraculous and the everlasting. Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, it is a sweeping and intimate celebration of the gift of life.

About the Author

Francis Spufford was born in 1964 in Cambridge, United Kingdom to a family of academicians and historians. His mother Margaret Spufford (1935-2014) is a professor of social history while his father Peter Spufford is a professor of economic history. He completed his Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1985. Post-university studies, he worked as the Chief Publisher’s Reader from 1987 to 1990 for Chatto and Windus.

Spufford began his writing career by specializing in non-fiction works. Among his earliest works are The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings: Lists in Literature (1989) and I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1996). The latter won him several literary prizes including the Writers Guild Award for Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year and the Somerset Maugham Award in 1997. His other works include The Child That Books Built (2002), Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin (2003), and Red Plenty (2010). In 2017, he published a collection of essays, True Stories and Other Essays. Aside from writing, Spufford edited anthologies.

From nonfiction, he started transitioning to fiction in 2010, and in 2016, he published his long-awaited first novel, at least one that can be classified as such. Golden Hill (2016) was critically-acclaimed, winning him a score of literary awards such as the Costa Book Award for a first novel, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the New York City Book Award of the New York Society Library, and the Ondaatje Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the Rathbones Folio Prize, the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, and the British Book Awards Debut Novel of the Year. His latest novel, Light Perpetual (2021) was longlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. It was also reported in May 2019 that Spufford wrote The Stone Table, a novel set in the universe of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. Self-printed copies of the book were shared with his friends but he is still awaiting permission from Lewis’ estate to have the book be commercially printed.

Like his parents, Spufford is an active academician. Since 2008, he taught at Goldsmiths College in London, teaching and supervising the Masters of Arts in Creative and Life Writing and the Ph.D. in Creative Writing programs. Ten years later, he was made a full-fledged professor. From 2005 to 2007, Spufford was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at Anglia Ruskin University. In 2007, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and, in 2021, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Spufford currently resides near Cambridge.