Francis Spufford is a master of the set piece. His great skill is to breathe life into almost any scene. He spent the first 20 years of his career producing narrative non-fiction on eclectic subjects, as if testing his range: polar exploration, children’s literature, the 1950s Soviet economy. When he began writing his debut novel at the age of 52, he wanted, in his own words, to “throw in everything I liked, and then the kitchen sink”. The result, Golden Hill (2016), was a larky, lusty, picaresque caper set in mid 18th-century New York. It leapt from riot to rooftop chase to banquet to duel – with not one but two scenes of coitus interruptus.
At first glance, Spufford’s second novel, Light Perpetual, couldn’t be more different. It is, for the most part, a quiet, contemplative book about the imagined future lives of children killed in a German V2 attack in the Blitz. It is slow burning where Golden Hill was fast and impetuous; its action ranges across the second half of the 20th century as opposed to a few madcap weeks; and it has five ordinary protagonists in place of one extraordinary hero.
Both novels, however, are tessellated together from vivid social scenes. Here, Spufford gives us a singing lesson in a primary school, a racist attack in a car park, a picnic at Glyndebourne opera, a wedding reception, a Millwall game turning edgy: “An enormous deep disappointed Oooooo comes up out of every throat on the home stand. Like they’ve all, together, turned into one big animal, angry or sad. Angry about being sad.”
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What connects these set pieces is the opening one: a German rocket burying itself in Woolworths one Saturday lunchtime, detonating among the newly stocked saucepans, which have attracted an eager crowd of customers. Among those vaporised, asphyxiated or buried under the “flying rain of bricks” are five small children: Ben, Vern, Alec, and twins Jo and Val.
In his acknowledgements, Spufford says that the inspiration came when he was walking to work at Goldsmith’s, University of London, and noticed a plaque outside a branch of Iceland on New Cross Road in south London commemorating a similar attack in 1944 that killed 168 people. Many were women and children. The novel opens by slowing down time to track the carnage, and then asks us to picture a world where there was no bomb, or where it landed instead in the park, killing only pigeons. Spufford goes on to imagine how the lives of the five working-class children would have panned out: “All the would-be’s, might-be’s, could-be’s of the decades to come.”
It’s a neat framing device, but why does Spufford need the V2 deaths when he could just write a story about five people living through the second half of the 20th century? Isn’t life unpredictable enough without the hypothetical of a violent death? The individuals at the heart of the novel are not real, nor is the London borough of Bexford where they are raised. Moreover, they lead lives so ordinary that their continued existence in no way changes the alignment of real-world events. I couldn’t help feeling the concept undermined the book rather than strengthened it, especially since the rest of the novel is a powerful reminder of the virtues of invention.
In the first section, set in 1949, we see the children lining up in the school playground: “The colour of the hush is a hard grey, thinks Jo, like a tarnished spoon.” Spufford checks up on his characters in intervals of 15 years: 1964, 1979, 1994 and 2009. Ben succumbs to schizophrenia; Vern wheels and deals his way in the world of property development; Alec fights for his typesetting job at the Times; Jo pursues a musical career; Val confronts the horror of being in a relationship with a neo-fascist. We witness their failures as well as their epiphanies. All are marked by history. Vern’s business suffers with every boom and bust; Val’s partner is increasingly incensed by black and Asian immigrants. But there are positive changes, too: shifts in attitudes to mental health help Ben to recover; Jo’s gay son is able to live openly with his Sri Lankan boyfriend.
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Curiously, given this was a time of great social mobility, Spufford sends none of his five to university. Vern becomes a millionaire, though it’s Jo, with her rock star lifestyle in Los Angeles, who travels the farthest culturally. Still, the novel teems with life experience. Spufford can evoke what it feels like to drive through LA at night – “hot gusts, sage-smelling” – and, a few pages later, a rainy traffic jam between the Swanley and Sidcup bypass. There’s a deep and pleasurable Britishness to the novel, from the Health Service spectacles the children wear in 1949 to state school bureaucracy in the final years of New Labour via the top deck of a London bus on Saturday night.
If Spufford wrote Golden Hill with Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson peering over his shoulder, the presiding spirit in Light Perpetual is Virginia Woolf. The book has much in common with her later novels, The Waves, a fragmentary work that follows six friends from early childhood until death, and The Years, a more traditional book about the social and political changes that affect the Pargiter family over five decades. You can feel Woolf’s influence not only in the time shifts and the beautifully observed group scenes but also in the themes: mental illness and mortality, the effects of time and the struggle to define oneself. And towards the end of the novel, there’s a particularly pungent Woolfian moment. Travelling home on the Underground, Alec observes how “we are so many”, but that each commuter is:
the centre of the world, around whom others revolve and events assemble. So many whole worlds, therefore, packed in together, touching yet mutually oblivious. So much necessarily lost, skated over, ignored, when the mind does its usual trick of aggregating our faces.
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What links Light Perpetual to Spufford’s other recent books is the theme of shame. In his 2012 book Unapologetic, he wrote frankly about his own mistakes and betrayals: “The human propensity to fuck things up” or “the HPtFtU” for short. He describes his conversion to Christianity, and its doctrine of unconditional acceptance, after 20-odd years of atheism. At various points in Golden Hill, the hero, Richard Smith, has to face up to his own shame, most notably after a sex scandal. In Light Perpetual – the title is taken from the Requiem prayer – all the characters demonstrate the HPtFtU. Vern is publicly humiliated, decades after he scammed a young footballer in a property deal. Val must live with the agony of being an accessory to murder. She joins the Samaritans and explains to one guilt-ridden caller that they should look out for “little chances of being kind”. Kindness, she says, “helps bring on the lights a little bit”.
Light Perpetual is a book with a quiet Christian sensibility. It extols the power of love and goodwill, which “once established, goes on reinforcing itself, making a deeper and deeper groove”. Spufford doesn’t dwell on misery and waste. Each character is offered a chance at redemption. Years after their separation, Alec’s ex-wife berates him after he says he’s failed because nearly all the most important things in his life have come to an end. “Everything ends,” she says. “Doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.”
Faber & Faber, 336pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair