Both heartening and heart-breaking, our literary pick this month offers sensitive insights into childhood, chance encounters and how we can live our best lives, and, one teenage boy’s long-lost account of the horrors and occasional glimmers of lights of life in a concentration camp
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
Towards the end of Francis Spufford’s brilliant new novel, Jo, one of the five main characters, looks back on her life as she nears 70—and realises how much of it has depended (as lives so often do) on pure chance. Had she not happened to be in certain places at certain times, it would all have been very different.
In Jo’s case, though, the role played by chance is even bigger than she knows, because, as we learn in the first chapter, she actually had no life at all after the age of three. Light Perpetual opens in 1944 with a V-2 rocket landing on a south London branch of Woolworth’s, where it kills scores of people, including five three-year-olds instantly deprived of a future. The rest of the book then restores it to them by imagining the lives they might have lived: visiting them at school in 1949 and, after that, every 15 years until 2009.
This method gives Spufford the chance to throw in plenty of illuminating post-war social history. The London docks that dominated the local area in 1949 gradually disappear—along with such things as conductors on buses, smokers on buses, Fleet Street print workers and Fleet Street. Yet, while the wider historical changes do affect his characters, Spufford makes all five resolutely individual, with domestic circumstances that range from the contented to the rackety—sometimes for the same person over the years. He’s great as well at showing how our various younger selves don’t ever quite disappear, but instead co-exist with our older ones.
The result bears some resemblance to the celebrated Up TV documentary series, which has now followed one group of people from the age of seven to 63. Spufford, too, invites us to consider how much of our essential personalities we already have as children—and what makes for a well-lived life. There’s also the same kindly tone and awareness that, on the whole, most people do their best.
Except, of course, Light Perpetual has the heartbreaking twist that the lives Spufford describes so richly—including those of the central characters’ children and grandchildren—were, by pure chance, not allowed to take place.
RD's recommended read
When 16-year-old Thomas Geve came to London after the war, he brought with him a written account and large collection of drawings detailing his time in Auschwitz. Desperate for the world to know what he’d seen, he approached some publishers, only to be told that “audiences are looking for more cheerful topics nowadays”.
As a result, his account wasn’t published until 1958—and only as a small, pictureless pocket book. Now, with this fully updated and illustrated edition (coming out just before Holocaust Memorial Day), he finally gets the book he deserves.
Thomas’s father left Berlin for London in 1939, expecting his wife and son to join him. But then Britain declared war on Germany, and they were left stranded as the oppression and eventually the deportation of Jews intensified.
On their arrival in Auschwitz in 1943, Thomas and his mother were immediately separated, with him being sent to the camp’s bricklaying school, overseen by a gruff but not unfriendly block-elder, a fellow inmate. The story that follows is certainly not without its horrors and staggering cruelty both systematic and casual. Yet, at the same time, it’s clearly the testimony of a typical, if unusually bright and curious, teenage boy. Thomas makes some good friends. He does his best to ogle any women he can find. He takes understandable pride in his ability to sometimes outwit the guards (thanks to the updating, we also find out about a later victory: that the bricklaying skills he learned in Auschwitz were later used to help build Israel).
Here, in late 1943, he’s about to receive some astonishing news…
“One day, a tall, friendly Pole came to see me. ‘I know that your block-elder doesn’t like strangers here, but I had to see you personally,’ he said in broken German.
His self-confidence impressed me even before I knew the reason for his visit. We went to a quiet corner and there he produced a carefully folded little slip of paper.
‘This is for you. I have to get out of here. So goodbye, good luck!’
Unwrapped fold by fold, the smudgy sheet revealed a pencil-written message. I looked at the signature. There was no mistake about it: ‘Your Mother’.
I was flushed with excitement. I had never given up the belief that Mother was close by. She was alive! It was as close as I had come to experiencing a miracle in this hellhole. There was a double reason for rejoicing. Someone had found my mother and some noble stranger had risked his life to smuggle in a message from the women’s camp at Birkenau. We knew that Birkenau was a camp of mass murder. The very mention of it sent shivers down one’s spine, and if you were caught with any kind of message, you would be killed.
The note said that next week a group of women, which would include my mother, was to pass through our camp. Nearly all the roommates were eager to come along with me to welcome her. More than the sight of my mother, it was the idea of seeing ‘women’ that attracted them. However, they were to be desperately disappointed, as the block-elder, fearing trouble from the SS guards, decided that only the room-elder and I were to see her.
It was a week of almost unbearable waiting and so many questions. I wondered what Mother would look like. Would I recognise her? Would she recognise me? Would this dream really come true and would we really meet?
The room-elder and I, carrying baskets under our arms for the supposed purpose of fetching the rations, walked down the main street. We saw a column of women in striped dresses, with bleak kerchiefs on their heads, being led along by armed grey-uniformed SS women.
We had expected to see glamorous females, but they turned out to be miserable prisoners like ourselves. Exhausted veterans rather than women. Their suffering was written all over them. I was shocked at what I saw, and hardly recognised my mother. Still in her late 30s, Mother looked as haggard as her companions. Without either of us slowing our stride, we touched hands. I managed to sneak a kiss. To hold her hand again was an unimaginable, miraculous moment. I would never forget that. Mother managed to express her hope that my work was not too hard. She rummaged beneath the rags that clothed her to pull out some bread she had saved. But as I refused it, the guard stepped in to chase me away. Our encounter had lasted barely 15 seconds.”
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