By Francis Spufford
Every disaster leaves behind a cloud of what-ifs. With the Great War and the 1918 flu pandemic in recent memory, Thornton Wilder wondered why five travelers, on a Friday at noon 200 years earlier, were on the Bridge of San Luis Rey, in Peru, when the moorings broke. “Why,” he asked, “did this happen to those five?” Do we live and die by accident or according to some preordained plan?
In “Light Perpetual,” the English writer Francis Spufford poses a kindred disaster-haunted question. Five children vanish when a German V-2 rocket slams through the roof of a Woolworth’s in South London in 1944. “Shoppers, saucepans, ballistic missile: What’s wrong with this picture?” But what if the kids had survived, Spufford speculates, saved by mechanical error or “a hiccup in fuel deliveries”? And what if we had access to “some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be still may be?”
Spufford’s vividly imagined novel is based on an actual bombing attack on an all too real Woolworth’s, in which 168 people died. But his five children — Jo and Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon — are entirely invented and so, of course, are their later lives. As in Michael Apted’s “Up” television documentary series, Spufford checks up on his cohort in intervals — five years on and then in 15-year leaps — from 1949 to 2009, when the kids are verging on 70 and surveying the wreckage of divorce and other dashed hopes.
When we first meet them — all white, all in the same school in a working-class district — the children already show hints of their future lives. Entranced by sounds — a passing train is “a scuffing of rust brown at the hush’s edge” — Jo will be a singer-songwriter. “Always hovering at the edge of the boys’ games,” Valerie, her twin sister, will make fatal choices with men, marrying a homicidal neo-Nazi. Vern (a.k.a. Vermin), an overweight bully, will prey on “the ill, the old, the lonely” to build his gentrified empire, “selling back to people a sanitized, touristic version of the grimy old city.” True to his name, smart-aleck Alec will follow his love of words into newspaper work, and his political convictions into a doomed union drive amid the rise of Margaret Thatcher.
And then there is Ben — poor, undersized, hapless Ben — who will be institutionalized for schizophrenia, immobilized by Thorazine and liberated through the faith-fueled love of a bighearted Nigerian restaurateur.
We are admitted to their inner worlds through third-person narration that closely follows their thoughts. Sustained by all his vices (gluttony, snobbery, cruelty and the rest) at a Glyndebourne-like opera festival, Vern — the most vital as well as the vilest of Spufford’s characters — isn’t satisfied. “Why, then, with all this clever beauty laid out for him to banquet on, does Vern feel a thread of unhappiness tightening inside him, a faint faint signal, growing stronger, that something is wrong?”
A nonfiction writer turned novelist, Spufford is a stickler for carefully researched detail. He wrote a study of British polar exploration and a defense of Christianity before scoring a major hit with “Golden Hill,” his exuberantly realized adventure novel set in pre-Revolutionary Manhattan. In “Light Perpetual,” he explains how the rocket’s burn-line opens “a thread-wide front of change propagating outward from the electric detonator.” Before computers replace linotype machines, putting Alec out of a job, Spufford delivers a fervent ode to the older technology: “Hot enough to smell, pristine, new-minted, brighter than the brightest silver, there build up in stacked lines of metal all the words that a moment before were only blurry typescript or pen and ink.”
Spufford is a fluent writer, bringing a deft touch to the emotional force fields of parents and their children. I think I was as moved as Jo was when she first hears a version of one of her old, abandoned songs remixed, in loops and samples, by her son. But Spufford can also be overly controlling of his characters, mechanically matching them up with nonwhite partners or tethering their fates via unlikely coincidences. Vern, on the lookout for a sucker ripe for getting ripped off on a real estate deal, happens to knock on Alec’s door. Val’s vicious husband, Mike, his skinhead crew in tow, picks a fight with bewildered Ben, a ticket-checker on a bus, and his Jamaican driver.
Equally intrusive is Spufford’s distracting practice of lacing his character’s thoughts with literary allusions. Would Val, on a seaside prowl for a new boyfriend, really find herself thinking, in words borrowed from “The Waste Land,” of “connecting again on Margate sands everything they permanently connect at home”? And did Spufford name Valerie after Eliot’s second wife? Would psychotic Ben, conveniently, be a reader of Hopkins (“Oh the mind, the mind has mountains. Cliffs of fall”)?
As Spufford’s title suggests, the narrative arc of “Light Perpetual” bends toward redemption. The good — two teachers, a trauma-hotline counselor, a selfless helper in a restaurant — are rewarded. The wicked — Mike the Nazi and Vermin Taylor — are punished. But the supreme being, doling out just deserts to the five kids rescued from Woolworth’s, is of course Spufford himself. I wish he had cut his richly drawn characters a little more slack.
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