Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford review - both a requiem and a giving of new life

What if five children killed in the blitz had survived? With bold metaphysical engineering, the Golden Hill author conjures miraculous everyday existence

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.

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