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Light Perpetual

by Francis Spufford

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4101662,427 (3.75)1 / 72
A novel set in 1944 London imagines the lives of five children who perished during a bombing at a local store, tracing their everyday dramas as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of twentieth-century London.

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Having enjoyed Spufford's debut romp Golden Hill so much, I thought I would read his second book Light Perpetual. I understand that second books when you have had a hit with your first can be quite hard to write but Spufford seems not to have been weighed down by success. He has popped back up with a completely different type of book but no less readable.

Set in a Bexford, London, a made-up area, the book opens in during the second world war with a V2 bomb heading towards the district and hitting a shopping area killing many people including five children: Jo and her sister Valerie, Ben, Alec and Vernon. Spufford has then undertaken that very writerly activity of saying 'what if ...?' and imagined their lives if they hadn't died. So, first they die and then they are risen again. There is probably more Christian symbolism in this book than I can identify just the title suggests that there will be some. Light perpetual (although the words are usually used the other way round) is a description of a dead person's soul bathed in the radiance of God for eternity.

Their imagined lives are not a romanticised, or glowing, or isn't-everybody-wonderful type lives but more ordinary, many disappointments and all written about in great detail. There is the wonderful description of a typesetting machine in a newspaper works run by Alec who loves his job. But we as a reader know what the future holds for Alec and whilst he is full of what the strikes will achieve for the workers in print, we know that this is the end of his life as a typesetter.

There is Vernon whose interior world is so at odds with the exterior one. A conman who has been made bankrupt more than once, he adores opera almost as a guilty secret when young. When fleecing a young footballer of his money, he finds himself speechless when Maria Callas walks into the restaurant he is eating at. His wife kicks him out of the house but he finds solace in his passion and in the gentrification of the local area.

Vernon has always been 'chunky' but as a successful adult, he moves to overeating, particularly when he is angry which he is when he realises he has bought a box at the opera on the wrong side of the house. During the interval,

He sits and waits to be served. This time, when the food starts coming, he eats as if he is entombing something. Burying it under shovels-full; forks-full. Mozart can fuck himself with all his fine balances. Vern eats the turbot. Vern eats the cream sauce. Vern eats the pheasant. Vern eats the morels. Vern eats the Roquefort. Vern eats the grapes. Vern eats the truffles. Vern eats.

Contrast this with the eighteen year old granddaughter of Alec who has Bulimia - another form of exercising control.

She's just eaten a three-course dinner with coffee and mints and puked it all up, and now she's gonna dance like a mamiac in case any calories accidentally stuck to her. And then she's going to go all faint and wobbly, and icy cold, and we'll drive her home, and tomorrow morning she's going to wake up just that little bit more starved than today. Just in time to throw up her breakfast.

Music plays a significant role in the novel. The story opens with the class singing The Rover of London, Vernon has opera and Jo is the one who manages to escape and moves to Los Angeles working as a backing singer and to create her own songs. Of course it is a male dominated scene and there is no time for her music and so she returns to the UK to support her sister who is having a crisis of her own.

The book is structured by time where we meet these five characters for one day every fifteen years which is a wonderful device for showing social change. We see the gentrification of streets, modernisation of working practices, some white working class feeling overlooked and ignored and responding with racist attacks and significant advances in the treatment of schizophrenia. History is the belt and braces of the book and therefore time features, either slowing down in the opening chapter when the bomb is dropped or speeded up when we jump forward another fifteen years.

Spufford's writing is smooth, never a wasted word and I really liked the way he turned everyday objects into out-of-this-world glitter. There is the football that Alec is watching that becomes 'a burning mote of gold' or there is the yellow garden hose that forms the bottom half of a bliss machine that also requires the sky and celestial trails of planes as a form of time keeping. Extraordinary.

It is a book full of hope. Each of the characters encounters difficult times but comes out of them, succeeding whether it be managing a mental health challenge, overcoming going to prison (and it isn't Vernon who does this!), changing careers or just remembering who you used to be. The book is also cyclical starting with the great light that accompanies the bomb and ending in their own light from a variety of sources personal to their lives as they come to a close. I was moved to tears by the ending and the final chapter:

Come, dust.

It is quite a remarkable book and a definite candidate for a book club choice.

Questions that I have:

There are many themes in this book. Which are the most important ones for you?

What did you think about the characters? Was there one that affected you the most?

Which character do you think undergoes the greatest change?

What do you think the role of music is in the novel?

Why was Ben the last person to die in the book? Why the 'Praise him' paragraphs?

Which front cover do you best think represents the book? ( )
  allthegoodbooks | Mar 8, 2024 |
In 1944, a V2 rocket hit a Woolworths in New Cross, South London, killing 168 people, including 15 children. In chapter 1 of this book, the 5 children here (all fictional) die in the attack, but then the author wonders what would happen if they hadn't died, what lives would they go on to live. And so we revisit Jo, Val, Vern, Alec & Ben periodically over the next 65 years, as they grow and mature, between them experiencing success and failure, love and loss. Some of them suffer badly, others seem to skim through life. The first chapter is an excellent thesis on the nature of time and chance, the what if that exists in all fiction is writ large. In the end, it might seem that this makes no difference, we return to dust, but it is different, these lives that have played out due to a quirk of chance. ( )
  Helenliz | Jan 15, 2023 |
“We are so many… Every single one of these people homeward bound…to different homes which are to each the one and only home, or else outward bound, to different destinations at which each will find themselves, as ever, the protagonist of the story. Every single one the centre of 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.”

This novel is about time. It portrays what could have happened in the lives of five young children had they not been tragically killed in a V-2 bombing in WWII. It starts with the explosion, describing it in minute detail, as if in slow motion. It then jumps forward to 1949 and fifteen-year increments thereafter, until we reach 2009.

It reads like a series of short stories, with only occasional interconnections. The kids grow into ordinary people living ordinary lives. I enjoyed several of the period vignettes – descriptions of football matches, talking to a caller on a suicide hotline, a character’s appreciation for opera, another character teaching a group of students to sing, property development in London. The characters face challenges that many of us encounter during our lives – addiction, mental health, ethics, family disputes, unhealthy relationships, etc. There are also a few violent scenes, with one character witnessing a murder.

I am not convinced this is a true “multiverse” story, a theme I have been reading quite a bit recently. There is only one timeline for each character after the initial split. It portrays how events and lives are touched by the absence of a single person. It hints at the various courses our lives can take based on the decisions we make. I liked certain sections but found it difficult to remain consistently engaged.
( )
  Castlelass | Oct 30, 2022 |
Gorgeous, heartbreaking, inventive. The imagined lives of children who died in the blitz: who would they have become? Realtor or punk, battered or beloved, successful or striving. Each character is fully drawn and unforgettable. ( )
  AnaraGuard | Sep 27, 2022 |
The great crime writer Elmore Leonard had a rule of writing – all but unimpeachable, in my mind – that "you should leave out those parts of the story that readers tend to skip". As a guiding principle, rather than an iron-clad rule, it's sound: provide plot, not flim-flam. Characters, not cardboard. Clean writing, not noodling guff. Francis Spufford, despite being a teacher of writing, doesn't appear to have heard of this rule. Or, if he has, he certainly doesn't agree with it. Because Light Perpetual is a novel composed entirely of those parts of a novel that readers tend to skip.

The central premise is interesting: in 1944, five children in London are killed by a German V2 rocket, and we then follow the lives that they could have had if they'd lived to a ripe old age. It's primed for literary exploitation, and could have been a complex exploration of alternate timelines and metaverses, a warm, sweet novel about human connectivity, or even the obvious anti-war novel. It could have been any of these, and yet it chose none.

Whether through a thematic shallowness or the endemic complacency of the literati, Spufford never does anything with his concept. But that's not the main problem with the novel (as disappointing as it is to know that you're wasting your time reading it). The main problem is that it's God-awful as both prose writing and storytelling. The characters are plain and boring – nothing of note happens in their lives, and yet we follow them at every step as our willpower seeps away. The writing is wispy, rambling and redundant – verbose, and yet with nothing to say. There are odd, unwieldy similes and some truly cringeworthy lines. For one sex scene, we have the following: "A soft touch and then a gentle scratch, soft and then a scratch. It's as if he's colouring her in, under the quilt, with a pencil that glides and shades and another one that etches and points. He's making graphite love to her, or so it feels, 2B love and HB love" (pp188-9). The V2 rocket attack is the least of the atrocities in this book.

Everything is delivered at great length, with a merciless and unprofessional lack of economy: the two pages on the sensation of using a typewriter are an early warning (pp41-2), but still cannot prepare the reader for the five whole pages in which a sermon in a black evangelical church is reproduced in its entirety (pp196-200). A later passage describing random commuters, illustrating a trivial point about how strangers are all individuals with their own lives, does not just describe one or two such commuters to make its point, or even three – but sixteen (pp279-80). The book ends by going into great detail about a bunch of millennial boys deciding to add sampling and drum-and-bass to their mum's old demo tape (pp308-15). We're a long, long way from that V2 rocket in the opening chapter – the only passage in the book that holds any interest.

Spufford's penchant for the mind-numbingly trivial is baffling, and Light Perpetual takes indulgence to a whole other level. I had hoped that Spufford would become a writer I explored, as it seemed he'd made some interesting, original choices in his body of work, but having read this, I've abandoned that hope completely. It seems he's just yet another of those self-satisfied writer types who are too busy piss-arsing about making doodles to actually write anything of worth. Light Perpetual is one of the most unnecessary books I've ever read, and I'd encourage you to follow Elmore's advice and skip the whole sorry thing. ( )
3 vote MikeFutcher | Oct 22, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 16 (next | show all)
Light Perpetual opens with a slow motion reimagining of the V-2 rocket falling through that Woolworths on that long-ago Saturday. The lunchtime crowd, which has gathered to see a new delivery of aluminum saucepans (a rarity during the war), is instantaneously transformed into "a dome of debris." ... Spufford checks in on his characters at intervals of 15 years, beginning with their deaths in 1944 and ending in 2009 when the "children" are about 70. ... Along with incisively describing the progression — and setbacks — of his fictional children's lives, Spufford conjures up an impressionistic history of six decades of London life. ... In resurrecting lives that never were, Light Perpetual is a miracle, not only of art, but of encompassing empathy. The novel becomes not only about the terribly brief lives of these five fictional children, but of the finitude that bounds all the living and the dead.
In “Light Perpetual,” the English writer Francis Spufford poses a kindred disaster-haunted question. Five children vanish when a German V-2 rocket slams through the roof of a Woolworth’s in South London in 1944. “Shoppers, saucepans, ballistic missile: What’s wrong with this picture?” But what if the kids had survived, Spufford speculates, saved by mechanical error or “a hiccup in fuel deliveries”? ... As Spufford’s title suggests, the narrative arc of “Light Perpetual” bends toward redemption. The good — two teachers, a trauma-hotline counselor, a selfless helper in a restaurant — are rewarded. The wicked — Mike the Nazi and Vermin Taylor — are punished. But the supreme being, doling out just deserts to the five kids rescued from Woolworth’s, is of course Spufford himself. I wish he had cut his richly drawn characters a little more slack.
added by Lemeritus | editNew York Times, Christopher Benfey (pay site) (May 18, 2021)
Five children die in 1944, but imagined glimpses of their unlived lives generate powerful moments of reflection and redemption. ... By 2009, members of the group will have weathered divorce, bankruptcy, and prison, but they will have also known the joys of grandchildren, late-life romance, and forgiveness. Their lives are full, dynamic, and ordinary, their twists and turns tied to the turbulence of the late twentieth century. What is extraordinary, the author implies, may be the fragile miracle of life in the first place.
added by Lemeritus | editBooklist, Brendan Driscoll (May 1, 2021)
This richly imagined mosaic tracks the lives five Londoners might have experienced if they hadn’t been killed as children by a V-2 rocket during World War II. ... There’s a subtle theme on the war’s legacy woven from references to building and rebuilding. The bigger threads are people and family, change and time, how we hurt, love, and use each other and find or lose ourselves while our brief lives evolve in “a messy spiral of hours and years.” Entertaining and unconventional.
added by Lemeritus | editKirkus Reviews (Apr 14, 2021)
Spufford (Golden Hill) spins alternate narratives for five Londoners who died during the London Blitz in this magical yarn. The story opens in 1944 as the characters are killed in a rocket attack during Hitler’s “Vengeance Campaign” against Great Britain. After conjuring this tragedy, the narrator draws on Zeno’s paradox to theorize that for every historical event that’s occurred, there is an event that might have occurred. ... Thanks to Spufford’s narrative wizardry, all five protagonists come to vivid life in this spectacularly moving story.
added by Lemeritus | editPublisher's Weekly (Mar 4, 2021)

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Spufford, Francisprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Church, ImogenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The last word would belong, not to time, but to joy. - Penelope Fitzgerald / There are all gone into the world of light. - Henry Vaughan /

Everything was available in Sidcup. - Keith Richards
for Bernice /
Lord Street to Cripplegate
First words
The light is grey and sullen; a smoulder, a flare choking on the sot of its own burning, and leaking only a little of its power into the visible spectrum.
Instants. This instant, before the steel case vanishes, is one ten-thousandth of a second long.
Every moment you care to define proving on examination to be a close-packed sheaf of finer, and yet finer ones without end; finer, in fact, always and forever, than whatever your last guess was. Matter has its smallest, finite subdivisions. Time does not. One ten-thousandth of a second is a fat volume of time, with onion-skin pages uncountable. As uncountable, no more or less, than all the pages would be in all the books making up all the elapsed time in the universe.
And yet somehow from this lack of limit arises all our ordinary finitude, our beginnings and ends.
The image of the V-2 is on their retinas, but it takes far longer than a ten-thousandth of a second for a human eye to process an image and send it to a brain. Much sooner than that, the children won’t have eyes any more. Or brains. This instant—this interval of time, measurably tiny, immeasurably vast—arrives unwitnessed, passes unwitnessed, ends unwitnessed. And yet it is a real moment. It really happens. It really takes its necessary place in the sequence of moments by which 910 kilos of amatol are delivered among the saucepans.
That’s time for you. It breaks things up. It scatters them. It cannot be run backwards, to summon the dust to rise, any more than you can stir milk back out of tea. Once sundered, forever sundered. Once scattered, forever scattered. It’s irreversible.
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A novel set in 1944 London imagines the lives of five children who perished during a bombing at a local store, tracing their everyday dramas as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of twentieth-century London.

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