As I was finishing this novel, my husband was playing the album I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning by Bright Eyes – and I completely endorse the pairing, if it’s available to you, when you read this book. Which you should, because it was a lovely novel about five lives. It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that in the first chapter, everyone dies. The author describes, in painful detail, the impact of a bomb in a Woolworths in Bexford (a fictional London neighborhood) in 1944. While this event and the characters are fictional, this is based on a real life bombing that killed 168 people, including 15 children. And Spufford draws from his own fascination with this event to use his ability as a writer to reverse the course of this event. The book (thankfully) doesn’t spend any time on the mechanics of how the lives are restored – we are simply thrust into checking up on five children who ostensibly died in that blast. By imagining what would their lives have been like if they DID NOT die, we are allowed to gauge the measure of a life.
We check in on the children 5 years post the not-bomb event, and then in 15 year intervals thereafter, sort of an extended 7-Up. We watch them grow up, and see their ordinary lives – “the futures they won’t get” play out for us in this novel. As I began reading I waited patiently to be hit over the head with how one life can impact so many – and was instead surprised by the quiet way that this emerges from the book. The 5 people this novel follows – Alec, Val, Jo, Ben and Vern – are ordinary humans. They deal with illness, greed, desire, ambition, in ordinary ways. They get close to stardom, lose their minds, and witness atrocities. But really this is just the quiet telling of their lives, of how they deal with the changes, and as I was reading towards the end I was really struck by how effective this book was at bringing home the impact of their devastating loss. This isn’t It’s a Wonderful Life, or a strange inverse of that – the book isn’t necessarily giving a chance to set things right. Not everything that happens as these people have a chance to live their lives is something redeeming. But the beauty is there.
There were a few things that take my rating to 3 stars rather than 4 or 5. There were parts that detailed the real estate market in London (made up, but still) that were a bit difficult for me to follow because I have basically no understanding of historical trends in London real estate. In general I think you might like this book better if you’re a bit more aware of London history in general – I think that would at least enrich the book. There were also a few passages (a long sermon in the midst of one section, for example) that I felt were unnecessary. These are small issues – I’d still recommend this if you’re in the mood for a character-driven novel.