Spufford wondrously guides us through the everyday world of ‘what might have been’ for five young children if their lives hadn’t been cut short by a V-2 bomb landing on the local Woolworths killing 168 people in November 1944. Beautifully observed and thought provoking.
BY FRANCIS SPUFFORD
As huge fans of Francis Spufford’s first fiction story 'Golden Hill' (in the Den’s Library) RD was eagerly awaiting this new novel by the same author. Spufford doesn’t disappoint in this beautifully observed and touching portrayal which relishes the wonders of 'normal life'.
November 1944 - It’s Saturday lunchtime in Bexford South London when, in one ten-thousandth of a second, a V-2 bomb lands on a branch of Woolworths killing everyone in and around the store in Lambert Street including an eager crowd of women with their children hoping to get their hands on a new delivery of saucepans. In that one ten-thousandth of a second it is not just present lives lost, “It’s all the futures they won’t get, too. All the would-be’s, might-be’s, could-be’s of the decades to come.” Amongst the dead are five children; Jo, Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon. But Spufford imagines another future for these children, as if they had lived, as if the bomb had landed further afield and killed nothing but pigeons.
Spufford wondrously guides us through the everyday world of ‘what might have been’ for sisters Jo and Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon from their school days through to their twilight years. He expertly and brilliantly gives the reader glimpses through moments of time from 1949 to 2009, from which we gain a remarkable insight to the ups and downs of ordinary lives led through this time of great social change. Don’t think only having small snapshots diminishes the story, if anything it adds to the reader’s enjoyment as Spufford captures the highs and lows of these five working class South Londoners. Spufford’s meticulous attention to detail and character creation is spellbinding in bringing alive these imagined lives.
There are times when you don’t like some of the characters as Spufford carefully navigates the domain of property developers and the British Movement. There are other times when you are frustrated by bad choices and missed opportunities or saddened by the burden of suffering, but there is no doubt you become invested in the lives of Jo, Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon. The final chapter left the Den deeply moved.
This book has so much to talk about in your book club. It is thought provoking, original, and takes you through this period of social transformation, advances in technology and changes in the political landscape with warmth and humility. Interestingly, the idea for this novel came about from Spufford walking to work past the plaque dedicated to those who died when the 1944 V-2 bomb landed on the New Cross branch of Woolworths killing 168 people including several children. He hasn’t used their real names but if you were to walk past the memorial now, you are sure to stop and wonder what lives all those children who died would have had.