Light Perpetual

Light Perpetual front cover
Front cover of Light Perpetual. Photo © Copyright Scribner Book Company
Light Perpetual back cover
Back cover of Light Perpetual. Photo © Copyright Scribner Book Company

Francis Spufford’s novel Light Perpetual, opens with a dazzling description of an “instant – this interval of time, measurably tiny, immeasurably vast.” The moment is 1944 “T+0,” when a V-2 rocket lands on a busy branch of Woolworths in Bexford, a fictional South London neighbourhood. In an opening passage reminiscent of the beginning of Enduring Love by McEwan, Spufford slows time and describes the chemical reactions involved in the split-second detonation of the bomb which brings, “a spasm of deformation,” as it scythes its path of destruction through objects and people alike.

Chilling detail

He shockingly juxtaposes the familiar, the housewives shopping in the Haberdashery department with the sudden total obliteration where all is reduced to, “particles, flecks… skin… bone.” He traces the differing effects on the bystanders to chilling effect, in particular with, “the travellers on the Lewisham tram, still upright in their seats in their hats and coats, but asphyxiated by the air-shock.”

Spufford focuses in on the child victims of this atrocity – Jo, Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon, “and all the futures they won’t get.” However, he chooses to give us, “some other version of the reel of time, where might-be and could-be and would-be still may be,” where the rocket landed in “Bexford Park, and killed nothing but pigeons.”

The novel’s structure

The book is structured by time with the subsequent chapters set in 1949, 1964, 1979, 1994, 2009 and T+00. Spufford creates each time frame with a deft employment of social, political, and cultural references that I found immediately and acutely evoked the past. 

The characters are used to represent a range of working-class people: we watch them grow up, making their way in a tough world where casual racism and misogyny are accepted as the norm. There is Valerie, abused partner of a violent neo-nazi gangleader; Jo, her campaigning sister; Alec, the redundant printer who retrained as a teacher; Ben who was a social ‘failure’ until meeting a strong woman, and becoming integrated into her large Afro-Caribbean family; and then Vernon, the grasping property developer, who did not end well.

All from the same South London neighbourhood, these various ‘lives’ echo and reflect the various social issues of the decades chronicled in this novel. Whatever their fate or characteristic behaviour, the reader rejoices in their existence as we see them form relationships, work and live: sometimes with joy and love; sometimes with sorrow and loss.

Respectful, angry and unsentimental

This book presents the lives of ordinary people with care and respect, while also expressing anger at all the things we have lost: where the love of money all too often tramples on the needs of the vulnerable and the welfare of the community.

The resolution is unsentimental, but the reader does feel uplifted by the optimism of the ending and is left with a gratitude for the gift of life itself.

A thoroughly enjoyable tale whose cinematic qualities will undoubtedly ensure its due translation to screen.  

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
Published by Scribner Book Company
Hardcover : 336 pages
ISBN-10 : 1982174145
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1982174149

Paperback : 336 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0571336493
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0571336494

Editor’s Note: Francis Spufford teaches creative writing at Goldsmiths College. On his way to work he used to pass the site (now built over) of this V2 bombing in New Cross Road.