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Light Perpetual Reviews

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford (author)

Light Perpetual: from the author of Costa Award-winning Golden Hill

Francis Spufford (author)

4.24 out of 5

12 reviews

Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publication date: 4 Feb 2021
ISBN: 9780571336487

The Woolworths has a new delivery of aluminum saucepans, and a crowd has gathered to see the first new metal in a long time. Everything else has been melted down for the war effort. An instant later, the crowd is gone.

  • The GuardianBook of the Week
4 stars out of 5
Alexandra Harris
22 Jan 2021

"With exceptional care, with a loving shrewdness that’s a little Hogarthian, Spufford catches the voices and hopes of five not-dead working-class south Londoners"

Golden Hill took its stylistic cues from 18th-century novels, swinging out on Tristram Shandy-style digressions, dashing off epistles, pulling narrative tricks from embroidered pockets. Perpetual Light is entirely different in its affiliations. It’s not an allusive novel, but one feels strong currents beneath it. The Joyce of Dubliners is close. I thought often of Dickens, but more of George Eliot. Spufford is deeply concerned with the steady effort to understand people different from oneself, not idealising or especially endorsing them, but taking them seriously... Perpetual Light is something new and brave. With exceptional care, with a loving shrewdness that’s a little Hogarthian, Spufford catches the voices and hopes of five not-dead working-class south Londoners, and the people who change and shape them: evangelical pastors, footballers, lovers, exes, children, Miss Turnbull their first music teacher starting up the umpteenth rendition of “The Ballad of London River”.


4 stars out of 5
14 Feb 2021

"Francis Spufford’s generous writing style combines a close-up view of events with a distant perspective. "

Spufford’s tone is benign and unsatirical throughout, with the occasional hint of malice (there is Val’s rival in California, a blonde girl “trying hard to fall out of a halter top”; Alec’s struggles with his role as “the tetchy granddad”). Quotations from songs and prayers, and moments of intense meditation, provide a counterbalance to the detailed descriptions of daily life and return the continuing narratives to the original metaphysical impetus and the idea that everyone is the centre of a world around which events assemble.

4 stars out of 5
11 Feb 2021

"(A) Magnificently observed love letter to London"

There are so many passages of dazzling lucidity in Light Perpetual, and the discrete characters allow Spufford to display his poetic prowess in a variety of contexts, from Vern’s cathartic emotional life in music, to Jo ruminating on the beauty of the youths she teaches, to the endless refractions of Ben’s whirling mind.

4 stars out of 5
Johanna Thomas-Corr
10 Feb 2021

"a quiet, contemplative book"

Light Perpetual is a book with a quiet Christian sensibility. It extols the power of love and goodwill, which “once established, goes on reinforcing itself, making a deeper and deeper groove”. Spufford doesn’t dwell on misery and waste. Each character is offered a chance at redemption. Years after their separation, Alec’s ex-wife berates him after he says he’s failed because nearly all the most important things in his life have come to an end. “Everything ends,” she says. “Doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.”

4 stars out of 5
Claire Allfree
2 Feb 2021

"a glorious act of literary resurrection"

Such unexpected transformations of a mundane moment or object into something transcendent glint throughout this novel like a golden thread. The grit and spit of the book is social, as it maps through the decades the slow gentrification of shabby streets, the merciless modernisation of old working practices, the replacement of white working classes with migrant communities. Yet its heart and soul is cosmic, concerned with the metaphysics of time, the unfathomable workings of the sublime and with how tiny, in the infinite scheme of things, our lives really are.

4 stars out of 5
Peter Kemp
31 Jan 2021

"The writer’s keenly awaited second novel imagines alternative futures for five bomb victims"

The social skirmishing also noted there among “the soft becking and cooing of wealth at play” is caught in a scene that gleams with literary finesse. Keen perception and exact verbal flair (apparent even in a detail like the “squibble” of a rapidly rewound cassette tape) abound. Whether watching skinheads gear up for a racist assault or families enjoying a Sunday barbecue of Jamaican and west African food, whether evoking the chaotic terrors of a psychotic episode or the “clever beauty” of a Mozart opera, Spufford writes superbly.

5 stars out of 5
James Walton
30 Jan 2021

"a miraculous achievement"

Being a novel, though, Light Perpetual can explore these questions even more deeply, by moving beyond what the characters say about themselves to what they’re actually experiencing. Spufford is particularly good at the Franzen-like anatomising of the thoughts that go on within families. At one point, a father whose ever-competent son is having a rare moment of terrible emotional crisis, “catches himself in an instant of tiny ignoble pleasure, drowned at once in shame”. And even more than Up, the novel shows how our past selves never disappear, but instead coexist with our present ones; or, as Spufford puts it, how “all… times lie on top of each other”.

4 stars out of 5
30 Jan 2021

"a historical novel, but with a difference"

Bad things happen to people; people do bad things. Yet Spufford remains cautiously optimistic about the potential for human redemption. The bus conductor Ben, who suffers from paranoid delusions, is, for example, cured by the love of a good woman. Here, perhaps, we can see the author’s faith — about which he wrote in his engaging apologia, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (2012) — quietly working away in the background, although he never stuffs it down our throats. Religion is there too in the novel’s title, taken from the Requiem mass. Yet it’s in its rendition of the here-and-now, rather than in any theological striving after the eternal, that this book truly comes to life.

4 stars out of 5
Kate Kellaway
24 Jan 2021

"a brilliant, capacious experiment with fiction"

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.

3 stars out of 5
Allan Massie
24 Jan 2021

"humane, admirably ambitious and – for the most part – very enjoyable"

Spufford is a novelist who combines amplitude and a relish for detail. Some of the scenes are perhaps too prolonged, and he doesn’t quite avoid the trap he has set for himself by offering the stories of five lives which only occasionally connect, so that readers interested, in say, Alec’s story or Val’s may be impatient, even bored, when they disappear for 50 pages or more while we read about Vern or Ben. But on the whole he gets away with this, holds one’s attention and interest. In short, this is an admirably ambitious, humane and, mostly, very enjoyable novel.

5 stars out of 5

"what Spufford appears to be most interested in redeeming is not individual human souls but time itself"

Whereas in real life we tend to experience time as a messy blur, with one thing melting into another too quickly to be properly understood, Spufford knows that a novel can hold up individual moments until they catch the light and then permanently fix them in writing: the “plain black static of the London night, fuzzed with sodium”, or a set of scooter mirrors that “give back a flitter of light, a mosaic of little reflected samples of everything around”. Such moments do more than irradiate ordinary life. They also confirm the reputation that Spufford gained with his previous novel, Golden Hill, as one of the finest prose stylists of his generation. If his stories grip, his sentences practically glow.

5 stars out of 5
Alex Preston
19 Jan 2021

"Themes emerge as we move through time, one of which is the nature of time itself"

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Towards the end of the novel, Alec speaks admiringly of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: “The only novel in the English language where the author thought plastering was interesting enough to put in.” Like Tressell’s book, Light Perpetual’s brilliance lies in the emotion and drama it wrings from the ordinary — but profoundly meaningful — experiences of its protagonists. Spufford’s prose, which is never showy, but always beautifully accurate, confers an extraordinary dignity on the lives of these imagined children, recovered from the rubble of a fictional bomb site.