This novel has been greedily anticipated by Francis Spufford’s many fans – I’ve had a copy of it sitting temptingly on my desk like the promise of a treat to come. Yet there is one thing we know about Spufford: you cannot second-guess him. He began as an elegant writer of nonfiction – historical, theological, autobiographical – before producing, aged 52, Golden Hill, a novel of exuberant virtuosity about an English chancer in 18th-century Manhattan. A gorgeous escapade of a read, it was hard to believe it was a first novel. In an interview at the time, Spufford said he had just been waiting to be “on reasonable terms” with his own psyche before turning his hand to fiction. But Golden Hill set the bar so high that I had wondered if he might offer us something unriskily modest with which to sneak past the famously challenging second novel post.
His elegant structure allows time to pass rapidly, imaginatively leaping 15 years at a stretch
Not a bit of it. If anything, Light Perpetual is even bolder than Golden Hill while in no way resembling it. It is a new departure – a brilliant, attention-grabbing, capacious experiment with fiction. The idea came to Spufford as he was walking down London’s New Cross Road towards Goldsmiths, where he teaches, past a branch of Iceland on the site of which, in November 1944, a German V2 rocket fell. A plaque commemorates the killing of 168 people, including several children, in what was then Woolworths. Thinking about the lives cut short, he decided to make his novel about five working-class children, allowing them to survive and grow up but not using their actual names and transposing their stories to the invented south London borough of Bexford.
The novel opens with a poised, detailed and audacious description of the bomb itself exploding. There is a sprightly life to the writing that is in contrast to the appalling devastation it describes: “910 kilos of amatol are delivered among the saucepans”. Time is deliberately slowed, followed by an invitation to explore unlived time:
“Come, other chances. Come unsounded deep. Come, undivided light.
He follows his five characters for a day each in 1949, 1964, 1979, 1994 and 2009. His elegant structure allows time to pass rapidly, imaginatively leaping 15 years at a stretch, leading us, engrossingly, through history. Clever Alec becomes a typesetter at the Times and gets caught up in 1979’s print union battles; Jo and Val are sisters and unlucky in love – Jo is an LA rock star’s girlfriend; Val falls for a mixed-up, fascist thug. Vernon is a property developer, cashing in on gentrifying Georgian houses and Ben is a schizophrenic bus conductor who has a terrifying – outstandingly described – breakdown on a London bus in which he conducts an escalating dialogue with himself, oblivious to the threat of skinheads on the top deck. Here, as elsewhere, the evocation of period is skilful, the smell of London buses spot-on (including posh kids dragging on their Silk Cuts).
One fears for Ben’s future, but in this novel, lives are unpredictable: quirky, messy, full of jokes, obstacles and blessings. Spufford is an artful non-dodger. He gravitates towards describing, with vivid exactitude, what other novelists might be relieved to duck: the musical travail of writing a song, the way typesetting machines work, the precise composition of a crowd. He likens a Margate gathering to “the slow heaving of a pan of porridge coming to the boil”.
Spufford is so comprehensively convincing that you keep unreasonably suspecting him of having experienced everything he describes. Extraordinary and ordinary things happen (including a comic description of inexpert washing-up halfway through). Happiness, in his hands, writes multicoloured. But the poignancy throughout is in being reminded that, in his characters’ lives and in ours, even inconsequential moments matter.
What makes the novel original is that we orientate ourselves in it in a new way. The usual suspension of disbelief is replaced by a back-to-front sadness in being compelled to keep remembering that not a single moment – exceptional or mundane – in this literary soap opera happened. The imagined afterlife was stalled before it started.
Spufford is a lay representative of the diocese of Ely and has, as a writer, a Christian heart without ever being off-puttingly pious. Light Perpetual is an exercise in gratitude, enhancing the sense that it is a fluke that we’re here at all. It is a meditation on death, too, with an entertaining warmth that does not cancel out its melancholy. It may be less uplifting than Golden Hill but its serious purpose dignifies it. Fiction depends on “what ifs” and in Light Perpetual, fiction is a form of mercy.
• Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford is published by Faber (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply