Books

Five Hidden Lives

The characters in Francis Spufford’s beautiful novel should have died in 1944. Light Perpetual gives them a second chance.

Black and white aerial view of central London
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What is a life made of, and when a life is ended, what is lost? This is the mystery explored by Francis Spufford’s gorgeous second novel, Light Perpetual, the unlikely follow-up to his prize-winning 2016 debut, Golden Hill. That novel, set in 18th century New York, was plot-driven and twisty. Light Perpetual is cyclical and symphonic. It follows the fates of five characters, all from the fictional London neighborhood of Bexford, by sampling one day from their lives at 15-year intervals, beginning with their wartime childhoods and stretching to the end of the first decade of this century. But before the novel can do any of that, they must die.

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Light Perpetual opens with the vaporization of a Woolworths store by a German V2 rocket in 1944, a scene rendered in exhaustive detail and based on a real bombing that killed 168 people, 15 of whom were age 11 or under. As Spufford explains in the novel’s acknowledgments, he walks past a plaque commemorating the tragedy on his way to his teaching job, so he’s had plenty of time to think about what that bomb did to that building and to all the human beings inside. For Light Perpetual he’s imagined the stories of five (fictional) victims as they might have been, if not for the bombing. Spufford gives back to these children all the life that the V2 took away. What will they make of it?

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There’s “clever Alec,” who delights in winding up the school’s pompous headmaster by talking with an exaggerated cockney accent. There’s Vern, who’s a big slab of bully. There’s dreamy Ben, so dazzled at a soccer match when the ball goes high and the sun breaks through and catches it, transforming the ball into a “burning mote of gold, motionless in the air,” that he doesn’t even notice a goal being scored. There’s Val, boy-crazy by age 9, and her twin sister, Jo, a music-loving synesthete, who sees sounds as colors and, when the notes of a song go higher and higher, thinks that “they are climbing out like men poking their heads out of attic windows.”

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Spufford’s chosen structure—checking in with his characters at regular intervals to see how they’re navigating the choppy waters of the 20th century—has an antecedent in Virginia Woolf’s 1937 novel, The Years, but it’s most likely to remind readers of Michael Apted’s documentary series Up, which interviewed each member of a collection of 14 Britons every seven years. As with those two works, Light Perpetual trains our attention on everyday life and seemingly unremarkable people, those who, as George Eliot wrote, “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Some of Spufford’s characters are, like Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooke, people who make the world a little bit better by their “unhistoric acts.” Others, not so much.

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Headshot of Francis Spufford
Francis Spufford. Bart Koetsier
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It’s tempting to label each of these five people the way fans tag the members of pop bands—Alec is the smart one, Jo is the talented one, Ben is the sensitive one, and so on. But Spufford is less interested in how people with different dispositions and capabilities “end up”—for don’t we all end up the same, ultimately?—than in specific moments, be they routine, wondrous, or horrifying, that make up the texture of a life, events that make it worth living or a living hell. Vern, for example, spends his entire span on the planet trying to get rich, and sometimes succeeding, usually via sketchy real estate schemes. He’s fundamentally alone, his relationships transactional, but his great love is opera, music that cracks him open to reveal “a Vern kept locked privately away, a Vern who trembles at beauty, a Vern who does not know what he wants or how to get it, a Vern tenderly incapable.” The complete incompatibility of the inner and outer Verns hits him when, while he’s sitting in a posh restaurant conning a clueless soccer star, Maria Callas walks into the place and he nearly loses the power of speech.

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Alec should have gone to university, obviously, but he marries young and has a kid. Besides, he loves his job as a typesetter, the way he plays the piano-sized machine like an instrument. (Music, as you can see, is the presiding metaphor of this novel.) He likes how he balances on that exact pinpoint of concentration where “the minutes are crammed and stretched but the hours slip by,” in perfect harmony with the mighty apparatus, “its thousand visible parts interlocked, and its multitude of pulses attending on his fingers, and its seat in front which amounts to, yes, an industrial throne.” The scene of Alec at work in 1964—unaware that his trade is heading toward extinction—is one of the novel’s tours de force, heady, vivid, ecstatically precise. This kind of work, Spufford conveys, is one of the ways human beings are made happy, if an often unsung one.

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Sometimes these experiences or moments lead his characters astray, as when Val, on a date in a posse of mods, first lays eyes on a “bonelessly graceful” bloke, resplendent in a peacock-blue custom tailored suit. “He’s got high cheekbones and feathery black hair and a nasty look, and he’s the best thing she’s ever seen in basically forever.” Every bad boy that turned her head before, she realizes, is “only a very approximate and second-rate thing” in comparison. Spufford is uncannily good at capturing the allure such boys exert over a certain kind of girl. This, too, is a high point, an interlude picked out as if by a spotlight, in which Val feels especially alive. When the novel catches up with her 15 years later, however, the price she’s paid to orbit this man’s beauty is the subtraction of every other joy from her world.

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Rivaling Val for suffering is Ben, who conceals his schizophrenia from everyone except the doctors who prescribe the medication that keeps it barely under control. In another bravura flight, Spufford describes how Ben uses drugs, distraction, and willpower to make it through a day’s work as a bus conductor. (Like Alec’s, this is a job that will eventually be deemed redundant.) At all times, half of his attention is devoted to blocking out the frightening, intrusive thoughts that plague him. When the bus is busy, “being in such continuous motion gives Ben something different from what’s in his head to attend to”; “the rhythm of the bus, when it flows, puts a fragile surface beneath him.” But unlike Alec, who enjoys the dance of his task, Ben is exhausted by the tremendous effort he must put into simply not losing it.

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Jo is the one who “gets out,” taking the novel on a foray to Laurel Canyon and the 1970s L.A. music scene. From her perspective, Spufford gives us this marvelous account of teaching:

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When she first taught anybody anything, the hardest thing was learning to isolate, from out of the mass of things she knew how to do with music, one thing at a time to pass on. One thing at a time, separated, is not how you yourself possess a skill you are sure of. Everything interconnects with everything else, and the natural impulse is to try to impart it like that, pouring it out in a useless torrent. Only bit by bit do you master the unnatural act of taking your own knowledge apart again, and being able to see what needs to come in what order, to build that knowledge in other minds.

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Light Perpetual is the sort of novel that’s carried by its descriptions, passages that transform the ordinary into the transcendent and leave us marveling like Ben does, to see a soccer ball become a molten hole in the cosmos. The peril with this approach, of course, is that we might miss the goals—an author’s vision might dissolve into merely a page full of words. Spufford almost always strikes the right balance, although his restraint does fail him in the book’s overlong opening scene, of the bombing. Alec, whose early marriage is improbably happy, spends a cheery morning doing the dishes, watching as “the sink grows a loaf of foam.” In L.A., Jo observes the needles that form “resinous asterisks along the pine branches.”

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In youth, the radiant moments when we feel our own aliveness have a strong, clear flavor. With age, they become mellower, acquire layers, like wine. The melancholy of the closing chapters of Light Perpetual, which find Spufford’s characters in their 70s, has its own loveliness (and occasional ugliness). Vern still gets a thrill from overlooking London, “his city, whose jumbled collage of blocks and spires and roofs and stacks never stops changing.” Alec dances with his wife (now ex—it’s complicated) at a wedding, sensing that “the spinning carousel of light that’s held his whole life, will sometime soon tilt away from him, or he from it.” And Ben, in hospice, watches through a window each morning as the sun comes “raying briefly” across a stretch of grass, illuminating “a brilliant sea of tiny beads, a million filaments trembling with light,” a satisfying callback to his earlier, sun-struck self.

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Ben may close the novel with a paean to the creator that he and his inventor (Spufford has written about his Christian faith) believe in. But this genial novel makes space for readers who believe that nothing is eternal. You can also see the story out with Jo, in the company of those she loves, singing an old song of her own devising, forgotten and then reclaimed, if only for a while, the way that everything is only for a while. It’s a song “of wanting, of losing, of missing,” but only decades later can Jo recognize that it’s also a song of “missing what you still possess; what, for a little while longer, you have and hold, but must presently relinquish to the dark.” This heartbreaking transience isn’t a flaw in the beauty of life, but rather the essence of its beauty, the same beauty captured in the pages of Light Perpetual—for however long this book lasts, as well.