A review and reflection on the novel Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
Francis Spufford is a great writer. His book Unapologetic is the one of the most original books about Christianity I have read and his debut novel Golden Hill won numerous awards. Light Perpetual is his second work of fiction.
(Fascinatingly, Spufford has also written a new instalment of the Narnia Chronicles titled The Stone Table, which is set between Narnia’s genesis in The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Sadly, due to C.S. Lewis’ estate not giving permission, it remains unpublished.)
Bombing of Woolworths
Light Perpetual is a story about a group of children in South East London who are all killed when a V2 rocket lands in New Cross during WW2. The bomb was real, it hit Woolworths in 1944 and killed 168 people, including 15 children under 11. Light Perpetual is an imagining of the life-stories of 5 of these children as if they had lived.
In an incredible opening chapter, Spufford describes with forensic detail what happens in the split seconds the bomb lands and destruction is unleashed:
‘Jo and Valerie and Alec and Ben and Vernon are gone. Gone so fast they cannot possibly have known what was happening…the matter that composed them is all still there in the crater, but it cannot ever, in any amount of time whatsoever, be reassembled. That’s time for you…It cannot be run backwards, to summon dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea…’
In a moment lives are snuffed out and the futures of so many are instantly changed because of this loss:
‘But what has gone is not just the children’s present existence…Its all the futures they won’t get too…How can that loss be measured, how can that loss be known, except by laying this absence, now and onwards, against some other version of the reel of time…’
The book’s premise particularly resonated with me because my parents also grew up in South East London. They are now in their 80s, having had 3 children, 10 grandchildren and a rich life full of love and influence on countless people. But in November 1944 my Mum was 3½ and lived just over a mile away from where the bomb landed. It could have been her in Woolworths that day.
The destiny of our lives and so many others turns on tiny factors:
‘Where by some little alteration, some altered single second of arc, back in Holland where the rocked launched, it flew four hundred yards further into Bexford Park and killed nothing but pigeons; or suffered a guidance failure, as such crude mechanisms do, and slipped unnoticed between the North Sea waves?’
Windows on their lives
Spufford takes us through the lives of these 5 people as if the bomb had not killed them. We see updates on their lives in 15 year intervals in 1949, 1964, 1979, 1994 and 2009. Each period is a window into how the ups and downs of each character’s life interrelates with the culture and socio-political issues of the period.
Faith is both explicit and implicit in the narrative. One character with vulnerable mental health experiences the transformative impact of Pentecostal Christianity, another is supported by a kind parish priest who runs the Samaritans. Another becomes wealthy but finds his selfishness and greed disturbed by themes in the opera he loves:
‘I seek a blessing outside myself, from whom I don’t know, or what it even is’
Precious and sacred
But perhaps more significantly, the book’s whole premise acknowledges the sanctity of life and the reality of evil. That each of our lives affects so many others: for good and for ill. That life itself is precious and sacred; a fragile gift that we have stewardship of.
Light Perpetual made me think about the lives currently being extinguished in the blink of an eye by attacks on residential areas in Ukraine. The firing of one destructive weapon is a single act, but it can end up having an incalculable impact on so many.
I also reflected that a similar book could be written about those whose lives are lost due to abortion. It would no doubt be controversial but it could give a more human perspective to the most polarising and sensitive of issues.
Light Perpetual is a deeply thought-provoking book. It is a reminder of the fragile gift of life and the holiness of existence itself. It is further evidence that great fiction can reach the parts that non-fiction never can.