A dense exploration of mood and atmosphere

  • Light Perpetual, by Francis Spufford. Allen & Unwin, $39.99.

Francis Spufford's first novel was a wry, sly gem. Golden Hill insinuated readers into a peculiar historical setting (pre-Revolutionary New York), created a wealth of truly eccentric characters, and finished with a deft twist to the plot.

The location for this new story is more recent and more bleak.

Spufford imagines a Nazi bomb, "a flare choking on the soot of its own burning", destroying a household-goods store on a Saturday lunch-time in South London in November 1944.

The 900 kilograms of amatol obliterate five children (Jo, Valerie, Alec, Ben and Vernon), eliminating in an instant "all the would-be's, might-be's, could-be's of the decades to come".

Nonetheless, the light perpetual does not - yet- shine upon them.

Eccentrically, Spufford then imagines the lives those kids might have led had they survived.

Where the motors in Golden Hill were avarice, prejudice, absurdity and hypocrisy, this novel quietly accumulates evidence of prosaic day-to-day existence.

The plot bears no resemblance to, say, Heaven Can Wait or Ghost, where the dead return but only for a while, under strict conditions.

Here we watch the five children grow up, re-introduced to each at different phases of their lives, as though they were bit-players in the documentary film Up series.

Why, then, maintain this odd conceit rather than just write a story about five kids post-war?

That question is not adequately answered.

Spufford is an intently observant writer, whether describing a school singing lesson or spectators at a soccer match, "together, turned into a big animal, angry or sad".

One scene, where a woman offers oral sex before receiving as packet of chips, starts in a humorous, ironic manner before segueing to a darker, distinctly nastier mood.

So, too, does a passage about a bipolar patient being used a a teaching aid.

Dense, rich, deeply-observed detail can sometimes clog a narrative.

Switching back and forth between five lead characters can diffuse focus and deflate the momentum of the story.

As they trundle along, Spufford's characters experience "all the goads of greed and humiliation and flattery".

Although one of them experiments with "mind-softening" drugs, the five characters remain acutely aware of their failures.

Bad luck, misogyny, lack of funds, the class system and other post-war English complaints are sometimes blamed.

The novel, though, is less social commentary more a dense exploration and evocation of moods.

This story A dense exploration of mood and atmosphere first appeared on The Canberra Times.