Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford

For me, reading Francis Spufford’s Light Perpetual, was a strange juggling act. On the one hand, the premise of the book got me thinking about all the millions of lives that might have been if they hadn’t ended because of World War II. Where would we be if those millions had been able to finish their fourscore years and ten? On the other, I needed to stay focused on the rather ordinary lives of the protagonists who—in one version of history—were killed by a V-2 rocket. The juggling act made me constantly question Spufford’s choices. Why these five people? What are we to learn from seeing scenes from their possible lives over the decades? Is there a lesson to be learned from a book that always prances away from stating its message?

One day in 1944, a V-2 rocket landed in Bexford and killed several people. Or it didn’t. Spufford takes us down the path that might have been if Jo, Val, Ben, Alec, and Vern has survived. Sisters Jo and Val go down their own roads. Val becomes enthralled by a violent man. Jo resolutely does not get too entangled with men, instead becoming a singer and songwriter who never quite makes it. Alec marries young and works as a compositor for The Times before technology makes his job obsolete. Ben lives the kind of marginal life that often befalls people with severe mental illness. Vern is an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer with a deep love for opera. The lives of these five characters diverge after school, apart from one brief, accidental meeting between Vern and Alec. Only two things seem to connect the five apart from their near/actual death by V-2. First, they all eventually end up back in Bexford, London. Second, they all have a propensity for getting lost in moments. Sometimes, it’s a perfect moment of light in the middle of a soccer match. Other times, it’s a wonderful moment of musical beauty. Yet others, it’s a horrible moment of inescapable violence.

So what are we to learn from these five? One idea that struck me partway through Light Perpetual is that, of the many millions who died during World War II and the Holocaust, most of them (statistically speaking) were ordinary people. Like the characters of Light Perpetual, most of the dead would probably never have left home. Many would have followed their parents’ professions. Many of them would have tried to make it big and fails. A smaller number would have had to deal with mental illness. Sure, there would have been artists, scientists, writers, geniuses, and people who would have changed the world. Most of the lost were ordinary—but that definitely doesn’t mean that their deaths don’t diminish the rest of the world. If anyone asks me what Light Perpetual is about, this is probably what I would say. But I also have another answer, one that is literally ephemeral. Over and over, we see characters getting lost in the moment. And what is life, after all, but a series of moments that later become memories? Spufford gives this quintet of dead/alive people their moments back.

I don’t know if I liked Light Perpetual, exactly. I certainly found it interesting. But I also found it frustrating because it never really resolved to my satisfaction; it just kept going in narrative-convention-defying directions. This isn’t to say I disliked the novel or that I think it’s a bad novel. Light Perpetual, rather, is unusual, thoughtful, occasionally profound, and often poignant. This is definitely a book for readers who like their historical or literary fiction intelligent and unconventional.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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