Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford

Having enjoyed Spufford’s debut romp Golden Hill so much, I thought I would read his second book Light Perpetual. I understand that second books when you have had a hit with your first can be quite hard to write but Spufford seems not to have been weighed down by success. He has popped back up with a completely different type of book but no less readable.

Set in a Bexford, London, a made-up area, the book opens in during the second world war with a V2 bomb heading towards the district and hitting a shopping area killing many people including five children: Jo and her sister Valerie, Ben, Alec and Vernon. Spufford has then undertaken that very writerly activity of saying ‘what if …?’ and imagined their lives if they hadn’t died. So, first they die and then they are risen again. There is probably more Christian symbolism in this book than I can identify just the title suggests that there will be some. Light perpetual (although the words are usually used the other way round) is a description of a dead person’s soul bathed in the radiance of God for eternity.

Their imagined lives are not a romanticised, or glowing, or isn’t-everybody-wonderful type lives but more ordinary, many disappointments and all written about in great detail. There is the wonderful description of a typesetting machine in a newspaper works run by Alec who loves his job. But we as a reader know what the future holds for Alec and whilst he is full of what the strikes will achieve for the workers in print, we know that this is the end of his life as a typesetter.

There is Vernon whose interior world is so at odds with the exterior one. A conman who has been made bankrupt more than once, he adores opera almost as a guilty secret when young. When fleecing a young footballer of his money, he finds himself speechless when Maria Callas walks into the restaurant he is eating at. His wife kicks him out of the house but he finds solace in his passion and in the gentrification of the local area.

Vernon has always been ‘chunky’ but as a successful adult, he moves to overeating, particularly when he is angry which he is when he realises he has bought a box at the opera on the wrong side of the house. During the interval,

He sits and waits to be served. This time, when the food starts coming, he eats as if he is entombing something. Burying it under shovels-full; forks-full. Mozart can fuck himself with all his fine balances. Vern eats the turbot. Vern eats the cream sauce. Vern eats the pheasant. Vern eats the morels. Vern eats the Roquefort. Vern eats the grapes. Vern eats the truffles. Vern eats.


Contrast this with the eighteen year old granddaughter of Alec who has Bulimia – another form of exercising control.

She’s just eaten a three-course dinner with coffee and mints and puked it all up, and now she’s gonna dance like a mamiac in case any calories accidentally stuck to her. And then she’s going to go all faint and wobbly, and icy cold, and we’ll drive her home, and tomorrow morning she’s going to wake up just that little bit more starved than today. Just in time to throw up her breakfast.


Music plays a significant role in the novel. The story opens with the class singing The Rover of London, Vernon has opera and Jo is the one who manages to escape and moves to Los Angeles working as a backing singer and to create her own songs. Of course it is a male dominated scene and there is no time for her music and so she returns to the UK to support her sister who is having a crisis of her own.

The book is structured by time where we meet these five characters for one day every fifteen years which is a wonderful device for showing social change. We see the gentrification of streets, modernisation of working practices, some white working class feeling overlooked and ignored and responding with racist attacks and significant advances in the treatment of schizophrenia. History is the belt and braces of the book and therefore time features, either slowing down in the opening chapter when the bomb is dropped or speeded up when we jump forward another fifteen years.

Spufford’s writing is smooth, never a wasted word and I really liked the way he turned everyday objects into out-of-this-world glitter. There is the football that Alec is watching that becomes ‘a burning mote of gold’ or there is the yellow garden hose that forms the bottom half of a bliss machine that also requires the sky and celestial trails of planes as a form of time keeping. Extraordinary.

It is a book full of hope. Each of the characters encounters difficult times but comes out of them, succeeding whether it be managing a mental health challenge, overcoming going to prison (and it isn’t Vernon who does this!), changing careers or just remembering who you used to be. The book is also cyclical starting with the great light that accompanies the bomb and ending in their own light from a variety of sources personal to their lives as they come to a close. I was moved to tears by the ending and the final chapter:

Come, dust.


It is quite a remarkable book and a definite candidate for a book club choice.

Questions that I have:

  • There are many themes in this book. Which are the most important ones for you?
  • What did you think about the characters? Was there one that affected you the most?
  • Which character do you think undergoes the greatest change?
  • What do you think the role of music is in the novel?
  • Why was Ben the last person to die in the book? Why the ‘Praise him’ paragraphs?
  • Which front cover do you best think represents the book?

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