Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
In November 1944, Alec, Vernon, Ben, and twins Val and Jo are being shepherded by their mums around Woolworths when a V-2 rocket drops through the roof. Francis Spufford describes the death and destruction with unflinching precision, millisecond by millisecond, from the combustion of the ‘livid gas’, to the ‘blizzard of metal jags and brick flakes’, to the crater left behind. Then he asks: what lives might these five children have led had the V-2 somehow never reached them, a misguided missile that perhaps ‘slipped unnoticed between the North Sea waves’?
I expected something like the speculative sprawl of Paul Auster’s underrated 4 3 2 1, but the structure here is much simpler. We drop in on the five at regular intervals from 1949 to 2009, for short vignettes, and we learn of the surprising turns each life has taken in the interim.
Spufford evoked 1746 Manhattan with verve in his fiction debut, Golden Hill. He’s just as good at these glimpses of post-war Britain, whether he puts his characters backstage with some Beat craze also-rans in 1964, amongst the skinheads menacing markets, playgrounds and ska gigs in the late 70s, or in a VIP box above Millwall’s Den in 2009.
At first, it’s puzzling whether the wartime what-if conceit was even necessary. If Spufford had just wanted to look at British fascists, or Thatcherite property grifters, he needn’t have fashioned an alternate reality. But there are several beautiful passages that echo that frozen moment of the explosion, and carry with them some nagging sense of how miniature and fragile a life is. They create a theological undertow that is hard to miss.
Spufford has said the novel is designed as ‘a picture with death as the frame‘ and it’s successful in that regard. The main flaw, for me, is that some of the key scenes built around music don’t have the transcendent quality that they aim for. From songs to hymns to operas, music is important to Light Perpetual, but it’s so difficult to do it justice in prose, even for the brilliant Spufford.