Five years ago, Francis Spufford took us leaping over the rooftops of 18th-century New York in his prize-winning fiction debut Golden Hill. The superb opening sequence of his latest novel involves a pile of saucepans and the slowing down of time, so that we can watch what happens in a ten-thousandth of a second. It’s November 1944 and a Woolworths store on a south London high street is busy this wartime Saturday because there are saucepans in stock for the first time in ages. Mothers have young children in tow and we see them in the crowd: Ben, spindly kneed Alec, sisters Jo and Valerie and chunky Vernon, who is caught there – at just this moment, as we peer into the “hairline crack” opening in the expanse of time – like a statue, with his finger up his nose.
Spufford is a tremendously varied and surprising writer whose work might turn up in any section of the bookshop, but a warmth of style and nimble dance of intellect travel with him across subjects and genres. There is a recognisable combination of elements here among the saucepans. The ordinary shopping scene is transfigured by the author’s bold metaphysical engineering. History and fiction are clearly locking hands, though we don’t yet know quite how. The notion of statues (and this novel is to be the children’s memorial) is immediately slanted away from grandeur towards the comical, real and humane.
In that split second, a V2 bomb explodes and the children are killed. The bomb is historically real: it killed 168 people in and around New Cross Woolworths, some of whom were buying saucepans. Spufford explains in an afterword that for years he has walked past a plaque that commemorates them. His response is a novel that imagines what might have become of five children – invented children – if they hadn’t died that day: if they had grown up and lived through the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s. He follows his characters from Woolies into the future: love, work, myriad troubles, the infinite complexity of being 10, or 40.
We meet them in 1949, lined up in a school singing lesson, mouths open in chorus; and then every 15 years – which means it’s a bit like the Child of Our Time documentaries following millennium babies, but more like The Years, the novel in which Virginia Woolf took samplings of her characters’ lives at intervals, each scene also a cross-section of social history. Spufford’s nose-picking Vernon becomes a wheeler-dealing property developer, starting with bedsits, aspiring to glassy malls, in love with the brazen energy of London’s self-reinvention. Alec is a Fleet Street compositor, proud of his craft, out on the picket lines when digitisation starts to render type-setting redundant. Beyond them flicker whole changing labour markets and values, but Alec and Vernon are not blandly representative. They matter for themselves, continually capable of surprising or disturbing us.
The songs and the furnishings change with the decades. Social relations change too, in ways almost too faint to show up in a sentence, or exerting poundingly clear and horrible pressures. The novel registers the culture of casual misogyny in which the musician Jo, girlfriend of a rock star, never gets her own songs recorded. It looks hard and long at extremes of racist violence among the neo-Nazi groups that made their presence felt on London streets in the 1970s. This is a book willing to do things that hurt; to make us hear, for instance, the terrifying voices that talk on and on in Ben’s mind, drowning out the rest of the world, holding him in the grip of schizophrenia. The ceaseless labour of mental illness is acutely evoked: the constant sorting through a worn-out armoury of tactics, the tip-toed surveillance of one’s mind, checking for trapdoors and cracks. “So many days like this”: the last, exhausted fragment of a line, as Ben retires to another comfortless evening.
Part of Ben’s tragedy is that for 20 years he tells no one about his illness. Except for the psychiatric doctors (who use their patient as a case study in ways that now look shocking), nobody has any idea of his daily struggles. Spufford attends closely to the impossibility of communication in this and many other, more ordinary, circumstances. It’s an especially sad and striking part of the men’s lives: both Alec and Vernon find themselves at insurmountable distances from their families, watching their children like strangers, signalling across gulfs to people who can’t be known. Thankfully there’s no pat call for shared emotional honesty; sometimes the best one can do is a semaphore gesture – “a signal of goodwill sent clearly, from far far away, across a great distance of trouble”.
Spufford has long been interested in the histories that fiction tells, and the shared territory of novels and narrative nonfiction. When he wrote about Soviet planning theory in Red Plenty (2010) he wanted to get at “ideas in lives, muddy, murky, ambiguous, this-worldly”, and did it by inventing Bolshevik cyberneticists as characters talking and dreaming within touching distance of historical fact. Golden Hill tucked itself into the creases of history, and then shook the whole cloth into a new shape. Readers could find their way in colonial Manhattan from its precise co-ordinates should they ever need to, but the novel’s alternative history, its “what iffery”, made purposeful departures from the record.
“What if, what if”, people keep wondering in Light Perpetual; “Why this life and not the other?” The novel itself, for all its intricate realism, is questing for alternative histories, other futures. How can the loss of a life be measured, Spufford asks: “How can that loss be known, except by laying this absence, now and onwards, against some other version of the reel of time?” Once we’ve switched to this “other reel”, it comes as a shock to look back, to be reminded of the history that blew these children to dust. So Spufford proceeds with acts of measuring that defeat all tapes and scales, considering the inestimable value of people by imagining them gone. The novel is both a requiem and a giving of new life, fusing death and resurrection as they are fused in the Christian liturgy: “Let light perpetual shine upon them.”
Golden Hill took its stylistic cues from 18th-century novels, swinging out on Tristram Shandy-style digressions, dashing off epistles, pulling narrative tricks from embroidered pockets. Perpetual Light is entirely different in its affiliations. It’s not an allusive novel, but one feels strong currents beneath it. The Joyce of Dubliners is close. I thought often of Dickens, but more of George Eliot. Spufford is deeply concerned with the steady effort to understand people different from oneself, not idealising or especially endorsing them, but taking them seriously. Alec watches in amazement the succession of figures lit up in train windows, each the protagonist of a different story, “every single one the centre of the world, around whom others revolve and events assemble”.
The novel’s five particular centres of the world form a kind of music between them, audible to us as readers. Their parallel lives run like the five lines of a stave. Music matters to them all. Opera is the central passion of Vernon’s life; it’s the sacred thing he won’t defraud or joke about or do a budget renovation on, and in watching him listen, weeping, enraptured, we see a little more of who he is. Jo teaches her Year 10 class, with their errant teenage bodies, how to make themselves into instruments. They straighten their bendy windpipes and a minor chord emerges from 28 throats. “Can they hear the organ that they have briefly become?”
Sometimes I found that the wonder of life was being pointed out to me, with accompanying slow dances and city sunsets, rather more than I was being made involuntarily to feel it. It’s true I didn’t rejoice in this book as in Golden Hill. But (unless one is the age of Alec’s granddaughter, bouncing along to “Nellie the Elephant”) we mustn’t keep asking for variations of the same thing. Perpetual Light is something new and brave. With exceptional care, with a loving shrewdness that’s a little Hogarthian, Spufford catches the voices and hopes of five not-dead working-class south Londoners, and the people who change and shape them: evangelical pastors, footballers, lovers, exes, children, Miss Turnbull their first music teacher starting up the umpteenth rendition of “The Ballad of London River”.
• Light Perpetual is published by Faber (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.