#BookReview Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Light PerpetualAbout the Book

November 1944. A German rocket strikes London, and five young lives are atomised in an instant.

November 1944. That rocket never lands. A single second in time is altered, and five young lives go on – to experience all the unimaginable changes of the twentieth century.

Because maybe there are always other futures. Other chances. Light Perpetual is a story of the everyday, the miraculous and the everlasting. Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, it is a sweeping and intimate celebration of the gift of life.

Format: eARC (336 pages)                     Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publication date: 4th February 2021 Genre: Literary Fiction

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My Review

I loved Francis Spufford’s first book, Golden Hill and was intrigued by the premise of Light Perpetual. The opening chapter is certainly powerful – dare I say, explosive – describing the obliteration by a Nazi V2 rocket of a Woolworths store, and all the people in it, into fragments of atoms in a mere fragment of time. It was disappointing then, only a few chapters in, to realize the novel was becoming a bit of a slog. Not so much “light perpetual” as “book perpetual”, I found myself thinking.

I think one reason is the episodic nature of the book’s structure as the reader catches up with each character relatively briefly with longer and longer intervals between visits. Sometimes, the timing seemed more designed to coincide with some social change the author wanted to explore, such as the industrial unrest in Fleet Street at the end of the 1970s or the property boom of the 1990s. At one point I even considered not continuing with the book – not something I do very often – but in the end I did persevere.

I found myself questioning whether I actually cared much about the five characters whose lives the book follows. For example, I couldn’t find much in the way of sympathy for Vern who pursues a relentlessly selfish life, albeit showing the resilience to recover from a number of setbacks along the way. It seemed fitting when he is finally confronted by the victim of one of his business ‘opportunities’.

My favourite character was probably Jo, who seemed to come nearest achieving her potential in the life the author imagines for her. Even so that still means her musical talent goes unrecognised in an industry dominated by men.  Choosing to sacrifice the career she might have had because of family commitments, notably supporting her sister Val’s poor life choices, Jo observes, “This is an accident. There is no need for her life to have worked out like this at all. So many other possibilities.” 

I think it was this observation that helped me “get” what the author was trying to do.  Even more so when I read the acknowledgements at the end of the book in which he explains the story was inspired by a plaque commemorating those killed in a V2 attack on the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths in 1944. Effectively, Light Perpetual is the author’s memorial to the children who died that day and who, in his words, “lost their chance to experience the rest of the twentieth century”.

Although I may had issues with some elements of the book, I couldn’t fault the quality of the writing.  To borrow a musical metaphor, the book includes some virtuoso solos. For example, the episode in which bus conductor Ben struggles to gain control over his dark and tortured thoughts, or Jo’s whole class singing lesson which neatly echoes a scene from the beginning of the book. I also liked Alec’s observations about the mass of individuals he sees in a crowded Underground carriage.  ‘Every single one of these people homeward bound, like him, to different homes which are to each the one and only home, or else outward bound, to different destinations at which each will find themselves, as ever, the protagonist of the story. Every single one the centre of the world, around whom others revolve and events assemble.’

And I appreciated some of the subtle touches towards the end of the book, as the characters reach old age, that suggest the memory of the event that might have killed them but didn’t still persists in some form. For example, Ben’s feeling that, “Sometimes everything seems to be shaking to pieces, idea from idea, bone from bone, matter all flying apart into a broken heap, and then he thinks he can hear a huge sound, a rattling rolling crash he has somehow been living inside”. Or, glimpsing the former site of Woolworths from the bus, Jo’s sensation that the building is “flickering in and out of existence”.

The book is not the literary equivalent of the film It’s A Wonderful Life where you discover what would have been missing from the world had the children not been killed in the rocket attack. It’s more akin to the TV documentary series that started with 7Up showing how social and technological changes have affected the way people live. Overall, Light Perpetual is a book I admired rather than loved.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of Faber & Faber via NetGalley.

In three words: Thoughtful, imaginative, assured

Try something similar: Louis & Louise by Julie Cohen

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About the Author

Francis Spufford’s debut novel, Golden Hill, won the Costa First Novel Award, the RSL Ondaatje Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize, and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, the Rathbone Folio Prize, the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and the British Book Awards Debut Novel of the Year. Spufford is also the author of five highly praised works of nonfiction, most frequently described by reviewers as either ‘bizarre’ or ‘brilliant’, and usually as both. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and lives near Cambridge.

8 thoughts on “#BookReview Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

  1. I’m sorry it didn’t work out well for you, Cathy. I was one of those rare readers who didn’t get on with Golden Hill but thought this would be more up my street. Interesting that you mention 7Up which was what sprang to mind when I first saw the synopsis.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh… hm… alternative history isn’t really my thing. Good job that the writing was good, then. Not for me, though, I’m afraid. (And it feels like you aren’t sure yourself if it was for you, either.)


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