Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Firstly, huge thank you to Faber & Faber for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publication Date:
Length: 336 pages
Literary Fiction | Historical Fiction

CW: Homophobia, racism, violence

Lunchtime, a Saturday, 1944: the Woolworths on Bexford High Street in southeast London has a new delivery of aluminum saucepans. A crowd gathers to see the first new metal in ages – after all, everything’s been melted down for the war effort. An instant later, the crowd is gone; incinerated. In it were five little children. Atomised.

Who were they? What future did they lose? Running another reel, another version of time, Perpetual Light is the rest of the twentieth century as the five children’s destinies were extended. Their intimate everyday dramas, as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents; as the separated, the remarried, the bereaved. Through decades of social, sexual and technological transformation, as bus conductors and landlords, as swindlers and teachers, patients and inmates. Days of personal triumphs, disasters; of second chances and redemption, all amidst the bustling, humming multitudes of London.

Five lives and stories told in beams of light, not ends.



The narrative of this novel alternates between perspectives of these five characters. We see a snapshot of all of their lives at particular times of their lives, rather than following each of them continuously throughout the 65 years that this novel spans. I really enjoyed this way of telling the story, because even though you have decade wide gaps between the parts, it was very easy to follow what had happened in the missing years. Of course, there were a couple of instances where I couldn’t quite remember what had happened to particular characters in their previous chapter. However, this was mainly down to the fact I was more drawn to certain characters lives at times rather than others. Although, this also changed throughout the novel for me.

At the beginning of the novel I found that I was more drawn to Ben’s story and Alec’s story. As the novel progressed I then found myself fascinated by the situation Val found herself in and then, by the end, I really liked the direction Jo and Vern found their lives. Now, just because I preferred certain characters’ stories at different times of their lives, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy their stories at all because I did, as Spufford has done a wonderful job creating such individual characters who all develop in interesting ways or they grew up. Even though they all started off attending the same school in Bexford, it was fascinating to me to see how differently all their lives turned out. Additionally, by framing this narrative as these are lines that weren’t supposed to happen, it put the entire novel in a completely different perspective. You find yourself wondering how the lives of the additional characters in the novel would have played out if the five protagonists did die in 1944.

Although there were moments where the writing style seemed poetic or lyrical (which I loved) this novel still had a Modernist, almost James Joyce-esque, feeling to it. These snapshots into these people’s lives have all been carefully crafted, each illustrating not only important moments of the characters lives but also, important moments and changes in British history, especially ones that are sometimes ignored. This meant that among more poignant moments of the characters finding love or reflecting on life; there are also some very powerful chapters which made for difficult, and uncomfortable, reading such as when Ben is confronted on the bus, or when Val gets mixed up with Mike who is very passionate about the ‘British Movement’. 

Whilst this novel isn’t exactly what I was expecting going into it, I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same. I loved its modernist tone and how it was, essentially, an incredibly in depth and interesting character study, which makes you question the meaning and value of life. This is a novel that I recommend you give a try as it can really open your eyes to a different way of thinking and give a brief look into some of the darker moments of modern British history.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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