Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

‘Matter has its smallest, finite subdivisions. Time does not.’

On 25 November 1944, a V2 rocket attack hit a Woolworths store in New Cross, London, and killed 168 people. Fifteen of those people were children aged eleven years, or younger. This event has inspired Mr Spufford’s novel.

In the transition from fact to fiction, in another version of time, Mr Spufford has imagined the lives of five fictional children whose lives extended beyond 25 November 1944:

‘There’s Jo and Valerie with their mum, wearing tam-o’-shanters knitted from wool scraps; Alec with his spindly knees showing beneath his shorts; Ben gripped firmly by his, and looking slightly mazed, as usual; chunky Vernon with his grandma, product of a household where they never seem to run quite as short of the basics as other people do.’

The novel follows the lives of Jo, Val, Alec, Ben, and Vernon through the balance of their childhoods, through adulthood into the twenty-first century. The everyday lives of five people: successes and failures; choices and consequences. We look into each of their lives at intervals: from t+0:1944; in t+5: 1949; in t+20: 1964; in t+35: 1979; t+50: 1994 and in t+65:2009. Five lives which sometimes intersect with each other and with others as each of them negotiates life, relationships, dreams of the future. Some of the characters are more likeable than others, some choices more understandable.

The novel held my attention from beginning to end because of the detail. Yes, some aspects of their lives are ordinary, mundane and seem trivial. But that is the balance, isn’t it? Between dreams and reality, lives are lived in the present while we look back at the past (or it haunts in other ways) and try to keep an eye on the future. And, for Jo, Val, Ben, Alec, and Vernon (as for the rest of us) time moves inexorably. Some lives may seem more ordinary than others, to observers, but we are each shaped by the place and times in which we live and the choices we make.

I finished the novel wondering about the impact of chance and change on each of our lives. Life continues, until it ends.

‘Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith