The Light Perpetual, authored by Francis Spufford, and published by Faber, was shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize. In the movie Sliding Doors, viewers watch the life of the protagonist play out according to two scenarios. Missing or catching a train leads to heartache or happiness. The Light Perpetual uses a similar trope. What might have happened to five children living through the blitz had the rocket failed to obliterate them?
The writing is beautiful and the five protagonists skilfully drawn. A little like the television series 7 Up, we are offered studies of each person several years apart. Ben struggles with mental illness throughout his life. We meet him as a child on his father’s shoulders at a football game. He disappoints his dad who realises his lad hasn’t enjoyed something important to him, and in fact has barely registered the experience. We meet him again as a young man as he tries to communicate his desire to remain on antipsychotics in residential care at the age of twenty five, and again at forty as he struggles with obsessive thoughts about burning flesh as he issues tickets on his regular bus route. Spufford’s descriptions of what’s happening in Ben’s mind is a marvellous reminder of how little we can ever know about each other’s internal struggles. Who of us can’t relate to his frustration with thoughts that tumble round and round?
‘I wish I could take my head off
and wash it out with a hose.’
We meet Vern, Val, Alex and Jo as children in Miss Turnbull’s singing class at school.
”Deep breaths, everyone”, she says. “Open up those lungs. Use those chests. Bring the music up from your toes. Mouths open all the way. Heads high and sing out. Stephen Jenkins, wipe your nose. With your handkerchief! And one-two-three-four– “
She plays the opening bars with heavy hands, and no excitement at all, but it doesn’t matter. We follow Vern’s plans to become a successful entrepreneur and developer. He is aching to be part of the bight, shiny post war world. Planning to trick a young b-grade footballer into presenting as the public face of his new business, he takes them both to lunch somewhere ‘posh’, both to impress thelad, and to make his point.
‘“..all this stuff down here – these people – this place- it’s all very nice, but it’s basically over. It’s the past, innit. And I’m not bothered about the past. I’m for the future.”’
Despite his at times questionable business dealings, this huge, burly man surprises us with his love of opera. Alex creates for himself a career as a newspaper compositor until technology changes his world, and we join him in protest. And we nervously watch Val as she’s drawn to bad boys and good times. With Jo we explore her dreams to be a musician. Jo’s experiences in the wings at the Pelican Club remind us of the way women were (and often still are) treated by their male counterparts.
‘But right now, she’s girl furniture as far as these whispering, oblivious boys are concerned. They’re locked in the serious business of male-to-male musical adoration. Withouteven noticing it, the one with the sideburns has backed her against the amp stack. The one with the thin, froggy lips has blocked her view of Reeves. The skinny one with the nose has trodden on her foot, then tried to kick it away under the impression it’s cabling. She’s been absent-mindedly pushed behind a wall of bloke.’
As we watch the progress of these five lives we are also watching the changing face of the society in which they live. Together they weave a picture of changing economic forces, the rise of new forms of community violence, the battle for women to craft the lives they crave, and the changing expectations of each generational wave.
The writing of this book was influenced by a plaque the author regularly walked past on the way to work that commemorated the 1944 V-2 attach on the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths. The novel is in part written in memory of the children who lost their lives as victims of a rocket. It is not about any particular child, but is a fitting epitaph for all of them.
Although the opening chapter is critical to the book, I had to read it several times before I understood and appreciated its place as a foundation for what was to follow. This is no doubt at least in part a reflection on the reviewer, but despite the fact by the end of the first chapter I was hooked, my disappointment in the opening persisted when I closed the back cover. If this happens to you, read on. It is worth the investment, although as I think back to my reading experience two weeks on, I realise I didn’t love any of the characters, and they are already fading for me. This might be a reflection of where I was when I read the story, or it might be that clever writing isn’t the same as engaging writing.