Of the many questions one might ask after a tragedy, one of the likeliest is: What if? What if the victims had been elsewhere on the day of the disaster? That’s the question Francis Spufford addresses in his graceful second novel, Light Perpetual.
The story begins with a devastating fictional variation on an actual event. On a Saturday in 1944, “an eager crowd of women” comes to a Woolworths in the English town of Bexford to see a wartime novelty: a shipment of shiny new saucepans. Everyone is having fun until a V-2 warhead crashes through the ceiling and “in a ten-thousandth of a second” sends plaster and bricks and roof tiles everywhere. Among the dead are five children.
But what if the bomb had landed farther away? Spufford imagines the lives those five children might have led, starting in 1949, when each would have been 10 years old, and revisits them every 15 years. The result is a clever commentary on the changes in Western society as seen through Spufford’s characters. There’s Alec, who works as a newspaper compositor before desktop publishing threatens his profession; Vern, a wannabe real estate mogul who isn’t averse to shady dealings; Jo, who tries to forge a music career in a male-dominated era; her sister, Val, who falls for a skinhead; and Ben, who grapples with schizophrenia and its repercussions.
Light Perpetual derives considerable power from dramatizing the experiences its characters missed: the chance to build and lose a fortune, to see one’s dreams realized or else rerouted toward more modest achievements, or just to hold a loved one’s hand. Spufford shrewdly reminds readers that tragedy deprives the world of not only noble people but also scoundrels, and this fact is part of the fabric of history.
Late in the novel, Jo says of her attempts to become a recording star, “But none of it worked out! None of it went anywhere,” to which her son replies, “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t any good.” That’s the biggest message of this book: A road might lead to a dead end, but the journey could still be worthwhile.