Book Review

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

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.

From the best-selling, prize-winning author of Golden Hill, 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.

Francis Spufford is an author who is new to me, but I was intrigued by Light Perpetual when it was featured as the Hay Festival book of the month for February.  When it was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, I took it as a sign that I should bump it up my TBR. 

Light Perpetual begins with a fictionalised account of the bombing of the New Cross Road branch of Woolworths in London in 1944.  It was an explosion that claimed 168 lives, 15 of those victims under the age of 11.  Partly written in their memory, Spufford then imagines what the lives of five fictional children might have been like had that bomb never landed.  This isn’t a Sliding Doors novel – there’s no exploration of two separate futures exploring the impact that bomb has or doesn’t have.  Rather, Spufford uses this as a framework to explore the changes that we’ve seen in post-War Britain and what those who died in the explosion never got to experience.  It does this very well, highlighting the changing attitudes, fashions, and behaviours as we follow these five individuals through the lives they might have had. 

But what has gone is not just the children’s present existence… It’s all the futures they won’t get, too.  All the would-be’s, might-be’s, could-be’s of the decades to come.”

Rather than following these individuals year by year, we see them at specific points in time starting in 1949 when they are 9 years old before moving on to 1964 when they are 25 and so on.  It means that there are some gaps for the reader to fill in, although it’s usually quite straightforward to understand what has happened in the intervening years.  We see each character experiencing various highs and lows, and one thing that I found interesting was that those peaks and troughs come at different points in their lives.  This is perhaps most noticeable for Ben, who doesn’t seem to achieve real happiness until he’s in his fifties. Their lives are not easy, and all experience their own hardships during their lives.

Following the lives of five separate characters, I think that it’s only to be expected that some of those lives are more appealing than others – it’s a big ask to expect the reader to invest emotionally in all five equally.  But while I enjoyed some of these narratives more than others, all are compelling in their way, and despite their similar beginnings, these five individuals go on to lead very different lives.  Spufford has given us five very different perspectives, adding real depth to the novel and its exploration of life in Britain following the Second World War. 

Light Perpetual is an intriguing novel charting the changes in Britain through the latter part of the twentieth century.  We see the ways in which things have changed, and the ways in which things have, rightly or wrongly, stayed the same.  I’m not convinced that Light Perpetual will go on to win this year’s Booker Prize, although it’s the first of the longlist titles I’ve read, so it’s hard to know how it compares.

Published in February by Faber, Light Perpetual available in hardback, eBook, and audio versions now. The paperback is scheduled for release in February 2022.

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