THIS is such an intoxicating piece of writing that I had to take it in small doses until I got two-thirds of the way through, when I gave up and raced to the end — and then pondered the end, again and again. It is a novel, a story of London, and a set of human stories. It is also a profound and teasing meditation on time and chance and the presence in our lives of an elusive reality greater than ourselves. It works as both a novel, and as a hymn at life that begins in disaster and ends in doxology.
The interwoven stories are of five south-London children, Jo, Valerie, Alec, Vernon, and Ben. They were among those who were pulverised in a V2 rocket attack in November 1944. But supposing time had played a trick and the bomb had not gone off, or had exploded harmlessly elsewhere? We begin with the paradox of lives that might or might not have been.
Here they are real. Our five children emerge into the aspirations of the post-war years. They witness the explosion of the pop-music industry, the arrival of Commonwealth immigrants, the conflicts of unions and bosses of the 1970s, the Thatcher era, and the emergence of New Labour. London is always the background and, perhaps, in its way, the central character. Its bombed-out shell is rebuilt in concrete, bought, sold, balkanised, partially gentrified. The lives of the five connect and disconnect as they strive and struggle, find love and suffer violence, split up and start again, break down and heal.
Francis Spufford has an unfailing ear for the speech of London’s different tribes, a nose for the very specific smells of poverty and affluence, and a sympathy for the ordinary excitements and miseries of the human condition. If we have anything universal about us, he reminds us, it is because we are grounded in the actual and specific.
The teasing premiss — these children died in the bombing, and yet they might not have done — hovers over the story like a pregnant cloud. This is a history that never happened. And yet that seems to be the point. The light breaks in, “light perpetual”, not through what is determined, but through accident. There is no such thing as fate. I loved this book and cried at the end.
The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.
Faber & Faber £16.99
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Listen to an interview with Francis Spufford, recorded on 20 February at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature