TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. British writer Francis Spufford roots his books, both fiction and nonfiction, in history. His acclaimed debut novel, "Golden Hill," was set in 18th century New York City. His latest novel, called "Light Perpetual," is set closer to home. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: At the end of his new novel, "Light Perpetual," Francis Spufford describes how he was inspired by a London plaque. (Reading) For the last 12 years, Spufford says, I've been walking to work at Goldsmiths College past a plaque commemorating the 1944 V2 attack on the new crossroad branch of Woolworths. Of the 168 people who died, 15 were aged 11 or under. The novel is partly written in memory of those South London children and their lost chance to experience the rest of the 20th century.
Out of his contemplative pauses in front of that plaque, Spufford has created a resonant novel about what might have been for five young casualties of war, as well as a God's eye meditation on mutability and loss. "Light Perpetual" opens with a slow-motion reimagining of the V2 rocket falling through that Woolworths on that long-ago Saturday. The lunchtime crowd, which has gathered to see a new delivery of aluminum saucepans - a rarity during the war - is instantaneously transformed into a dome of debris. Spufford's omniscient narrator ticks off some of the cloud's component parts - knitting patterns, wooden table, pans, much-darned brown worsted hand-me-down winter coat, skin, bone.
Spufford checks in on his characters at intervals of 15 years, beginning with their deaths in 1944 and ending in 2009, when the children are about 70. This plot structure can sound formulaic, plodding even, and certainly the pitfalls of sentimentality are many in a story that imagines the lives that five invented dead children might have led.
But Spufford avoids those pitfalls, and as he moves his children through their imagined lives, they become so much more than mere reverent icons. For instance, the class bully, Vernon, dubbed Vermin by his classmates, grows into a crooked property developer. Another more delicate child named Ben grows up to hold down jobs as a kitchen porter and bus conductor. He also has to be institutionalized for a time for schizophrenia and persistent nightmares of cannibalism.
Alec, who from the get-go is one of the most compelling of the children, must surrender his dreams of going to university because of his father's early death. Alec marries young, becomes a leader in his printer's union and, at bedtime, devours heavy tomes like Robert Tressel's 1914 socialist classic, "The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists."
Even to tick off these characters and their stories in this fashion renders them reductive in a way that Spufford never does. He's such a beautiful writer, casually stunning in his language and perceptions. Here, for instance, Spufford captures the middle-aged Alec's thoughts after an argument with his teenage son.
(Reading) Everyone knows that parenthood changes you, but Alec had thought that meant the rearrangement that comes at the beginning of it, when you learn that your life is going to be curled protectively around the kids. He doesn't know what to do with this recent, new rage, where you feel the hopes and expectations you've had for them start to shrivel and unpick, where the story of their lives you've been telling yourself with the chances you'd have liked turns out to be nothing like their own story of themselves.
Along with incisively describing the progression and setbacks of his fictional children's lives, Spufford conjures up an impressionistic history of six decades of London life. Here's Jo, who grows up to become a member of a girl group called The Tearaways during the Swinging '60s. Spufford describes Jo standing next to a Beatles knockoff band in the wings of the Pelican Club, listening to an older blues musician. In a few quick sentences, Spufford nails the era's signature style and sexism.
(Reading) She looks good tonight. She knows she does. The Tearaways have an Honor Blackman-in-"The Avengers" thing going and are all wearing tight black sweaters, tight black trousers and boots with spiked heels. But right now, she's girl furniture as far as these whispering, oblivious boys are concerned. They're locked in the serious business of male-to-male musical adoration.
Again and again, Spufford draws us readers into the mundane particularity of his maturing characters' lives. And again and again, we readers are jolted by the awareness that those five futures were cut short in 1944. In resurrecting lives that never were, "Light Perpetual" is a miracle, not only of art, but of encompassing empathy. The novel becomes not only about the terribly brief lives of these five fictional children, but of the finitude that bounds all the living and the dead.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Light Perpetual" by Frances Spufford.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll feature our interview with women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe. She's one of several women soccer stars featured in a new HBO Max documentary about the women's national team's ongoing fight for equal pay. She'll talk about that fight and her life and soccer career. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAROLD LOPEZ-NUSSA'S "HABANA SIN SABANAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.