Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual (Scribner 2021) just oozes traditional Booker Prize type, so I’m not surprised it was longlisted.
The novel opens in 1944 at the Woolworths in South London. The store is packed full of patrons because there are new cookpots available, something that war-torn England hasn’t seen in a long time. A rocket rips through the store. When the dust settles, 168 are dead. The rocket decimating this Woolworths and the cookpots the crowd had come to see are firmly rooted in history, but the five young children who are killed in the opening of Spufford’s novel are fictional – as is the rest of the story.
Spufford takes these five young children and reimagines a world where they didn’t die.
“Come, other future. Come, mercy not manifest in time; come knowledge not obtainable in time. Come, other chances. Come, unsounded deep. Come, undivided light. Come dust.”
The reader gets flashes of their lives, beginning in 1949 and running a lifetime until 2009. The windows open on their worlds, and flashes of color and the pain of living pour out. This isn’t a “happily ever after” story; it’s far too real for that. It bleeds. It cries. It cuts. But it also dreams and laughs.
There are the twins, Jo and Val, whose lives take very different directions when they fall for the wrong men. There’s Vern who just can’t shake the childhood nickname of vermin, and for good reason. There’s Alec, the steady and reliable husband and father who devotes his life to print journalism and watches its demise. And there’s Ben, whose demons live inside his head.
Through the years, the reader watches them live. Marriage. Divorce. Murder. Drugs. Mental institutes. Jail. Music. Babies. Memories. Love. The impact of their lives, snuffed out in 1944 and recast for a lifetime, shines in the mundane.
Have you ever seen light reflecting off dust? It’s quite lovely.
Read this book.