In 1944, instead of flying four hundred yards further to land in a park and kill a few pigeons, or even failing to launch at all, a German warhead explodes in a branch of Woolworths in the fictional London Borough of Bexford. Amongst those atomised are five young children out shopping with their mothers as they stand transfixed by a rare delivery of gleaming saucepans.
Based on a real event, this situation prompts a remarkable opening chapter in which the author displays his verbal pyrotechnics to describe the action of the blast wave in the minute detail which is a feature of his many subsequent flourishes of creative writing.
The remainder of the book plays out the lives which these five children might have led, captured at fifteen year intervals against the backdrop of the marked social changes in Britain up to 2009, when Alec, Vern, sisters Jo and Val and Ben are all pensioners.
Perhaps the novel will resonate most with those old enough to recall primary schools in the fifties, the battles between Mods and Rockers in seaside resorts, the rise of the teenager and pop culture, the use of new computer technology to crush the power of the printers holding newspaper owners to ransom with hot metal typesetting, the channelling of white male insecurity into the violence of fascist groups like the British Movement, the property boom, the financial crash of 2008, the transformation of urban areas into multicultural communities, and so on. Yet with limited space, the novel can only give a flavour of the massive changes of the second half of the C20.
Our awareness from the outset that the children’s lives are imagined, “what might have been”, should give a sense of poignancy, but in fact one soon forgets that this is is the case. It even seems irrelevant, since it is so apparent that random chance, fate, force of circumstance, call it what you will, affect us all to such a degree, causing the lives of the five children to diverge so markedly, although ironically they all end up in the vicinity of Bexford.
The mainly working class characters appear for the most part stereotyped. Greedy bully Vern grows up to cheat people to finance his property deals. Smart Alec, married and child-bound by his early twenties, is too delighted by his skills, enthroned as “king and alchemist” of typesetting, to grasp that the writing is on the wall – or rather on the computer screen. When he eventually finds a new role, it is too late for him to achieve his full potential, and his gains are made at considerable personal cost. Maybe as a result of being born too long before the “women’s liberation” of the 1970s, sisters, Jo and Val, spend too much of their lives allowing themselves to be dominated by men with whom they are infatuated. Jo’s sudden sense, aged 70, that her whole life rests on accidents, that “surely her real life is waiting to happen” is a telling insight on what many people must feel.
Although Francis Spufford has the skill to make watching paint dry interesting, his trademark of shooting off on tangents of minutely detailed descriptions of a sensation or incident may be great material for a master class in creating writing but can prove wearisome – overwritten and repetitive. Examples are a” matter of opinion, but I am thinking of obsessive Ben’s anxiety attack (involving “CHARRED RIBS) on a London bus while inappropriately employed as a bus conductor, or the description of Jo’s attempt to work on composing in her Californian apartment a piece of music, years in gestation, to which her self-absorbed pop singer employer, some-time lover will never bother to listen and promote. The full pathos of these two situations is lost in the verbiage.
Despite proving entertaining overall, by turns comic, profoundly sad and philosophical, this feels like a soap opera which could have included many other scenes en route, or continued until all the characters are made to pass on at the age of 100. The conclusion actually reached seems disappointingly woolly:
“Mightn’t there be a line of sight, not ours, from which the seeming cloud of debris of our days, no more in order than (say) the shredded particles riding the wavefront of an explosion, prove to align. Into a clockface of transparencies. The whole mess a rose, a window.”
Of course, one may feel that this links back, cleverly but contrived, to the bomb explosion at the beginning.