Francis Spufford has surprised and delighted me once again. How do you follow a remarkable book like Golden Hill? By writing something completely different, it seems – different genre, different voice and style, different format. You’d imagine that would point to a different audience but I realise it is the integrity of Spufford’s writing that I love every bit as much as the rollicking story that made Golden Hill such a hit for me. I’m sure Light Perpetual will reach all Spufford’s previous fans and garner a legion of new ones.
This is not a rollicking story. It is dysfunctional as a story, if you expect (as I do) a story to follow the adventures and psychological development of one or two main characters. Spufford kills off all his characters in the first chapter.
They’re dead, killed in a blast at the end of the war based on a real event when a German V2 bomber wiped out 168 people shopping in Woolworths. Spufford moves the setting to an imaginary south London suburb he calls Bexford and takes five children from the dead and gives them imaginary lives.
It’s a strange conceit, to read about people who have been rescued by a sweep of the author’s pen and allowed to have another go. There are a few books around at the moment with this theme of second chances: some I’ve recently reviewed: Come Again and Midnight Library (both didn’t make the cut for me), also Bublitz’s Before You Knew my Name is on my pile to read. Lincoln in the Bardo. Others I’ll remember in a minute.
In Light Perpetual, no one in the story is in on the fact that these people don’t exist any more, that Spufford has plucked them away from the falling bomb and set them off again, with a God-like nudge, to do what they will with their second chance.
They squander it, of course. Because they don’t know. I think people who get a second crack at life are different. Those who should be dead but for a miraculous escape seem to treat their lives with more respect, with a certain gratitude for the knowledge that the finger of death pointed at them and then passed them by. The fact that these characters don’t treat their own lives with care creates a tension throughout the story. I wanted to shout: ‘You’re bloody lucky to be alive, you fool!’ at them. Perhaps Spufford is trying to teach us gratitude with this book, and to encourage us to be thankful for every day.
That makes it sound preachy, but it isn’t at all. We just follow these five kids, all their lives, looking in on each of them one day every 15 years like the English social experiment Seven Up. One of the girls almost makes it big as a singer/songwriter, her sister falls under the wing of a nasty but very believable white supremacist. A boy becomes a typesetter as the 1970s union battles rage, and the reform of the print industry reforms his life. There’s a wide boy who goes from rags to riches a few times with wide-eyed optimism all the way. I wanted his dishonesty to be punished but couldn’t help rooting for him. I know what he doesn’t – that he’s already been slaughtered in an outrage.
But the character who will stay with you forever is Ben, who has a disorder that has him voluntarily institutionalised where he asks to be “put down” because of the images in his head. Perhaps, of all of them, his subconscious holds a memory of the carnage of his original death. This is a fear that dances in his peripheral vision. “…none of that reasonable-sounding stuff has the power to send it away. You can’t disbelieve your way out of a fear when you are, really and truly, afraid. The fear is stronger than him, always. He knows that. All you get for challenging it is panic.” It’s all rather horribly convincing and I’m tempted to spill the beans here because the thing he fears is so bizarre and revolting. But no. You can read the book and turn vegetation without any help from me.
There are huge gaps in these stories as we follow five characters and their connections through their entire lives in 340 pages. What we miss in the text, Spufford gives over to us to imagine. One woman we leave on the way to jail, the next time we see her she is released and the reader is expected to fill in the gap with their own imagination, and there’s no wrong or right to this because it is a work of fiction and the characters should be dead anyway. So there’s a sense that the reader is engaged as a co-author of the plot and I enjoyed that role very much.
Go, Frances Spufford! Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.