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From the critically acclaimed and award‑winning author of Golden Hill, an “extraordinary…symphonic…casually stunning” (The Wall Street Journal) novel tracing the infinite possibilities of five lives in the bustling neighborhoods of 20th-century London.

Lunchtime on a Saturday, 1944: the Woolworths on Bexford High Street in South London receives a delivery of aluminum saucepans. A crowd gathers to see the first new metal in ages—after all, everything’s been melted down for the war effort. An instant later, the crowd is gone; incinerated. Among the shoppers were five young children.

Who were they? What futures did they lose? This brilliantly constructed novel, inspired by real events, lets an alternative reel of time run, imagining the lives of these five souls as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of the bustling immensity of twentieth-century London. Their intimate everyday dramas, as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents; as the separated, the remarried, the bereaved. Through decades of social, sexual, and technological transformation, as bus conductors and landlords, as swindlers and teachers, patients and inmates. Days of personal triumphs and disasters; of second chances and redemption.

Ingenious and profound, full of warmth and beauty, Light Perpetual “offers a moving view of how people confront the gap between their expectations and their reality” (The New Yorker) and illuminates the shapes of experience, the extraordinariness of the ordinary, the mysteries of memory, and the preciousness of life.

This reading group guide for Light Perpetual includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Journey through the changing of a big city through 1944 to 2009 from the viewpoints of five young people: Jo, Val, Vern, Alec, and Ben as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of the bustling immensity of twentieth-century London. Their intimate everyday dramas, as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents; as the separated, the remarried, the bereaved. Through decades of social, sexual, and technological transformation, as bus conductors and landlords, as swindlers and teachers, patients and inmates. Days of personal triumphs, disasters; of second chances and redemption. Light Perpetual is a stunning novel about what makes people who they are, from the author of Golden Hill.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. The opening chapter sets a sort of anti-scene for the rest of the book. Why do you think Spufford chose to begin the book the way he did?

2. There are many words specific to England (and even more specifically, twentieth-century London) in Light Perpetual (“dollybirds,” “skinheads,” “blancmange,” Nancy-boys,” money in “half-crowns and ten-bob notes”). As a group, keep track of these words as you come across them, and keep a running list of terms and definitions.

3. On page 37, when Alec is interviewing for a job (one he’s dreamed of getting), Hobson tries to talk him out of getting a union gig: “you’ve got a future ahead of you in the print, and that’s grand. That will see you and Sandra right. And I done my best to help. But you’re a bright boy. And I just wanted to say, so I had at least come out and said it, at least once—is this what you really want?” Compare Alec in pages 29–40 with Alec in pages 275–95. How has the way he thinks about work and family changed, or has it stayed the same?

4. Jo is one of the stronger female characters in Light Perpetual. In the first standalone chapter about her, she’s observing young men around her discuss their tastes in music. She muses, “In her experience nothing good at all comes from making the faintest criticism of men’s expertise in what men think of as men’s stuff” (page 77). What does that tell you about her understanding of the gender roles she’s been born into?

5. Starting on page 129, we rejoin Jo, who is now working in LA. How does her relationship with Ricky call back to her interaction with the boys on page 77, and what do you think she’s learned since then?

6. In Light Perpetual, there is a lot of subtle commentary on the roles that were assigned to men and women in twentieth-century London. The stories of Val and Jo speak to this especially. When we first meet Val (page 40), she’s on a date with Alan, and then meets Mike. What does her first interaction with Mike tell you about what their relationship might become?

7. Mike is part of the skinhead youth culture of white working-class London in the 1970s, a violent and racist reaction against the changing ethnic makeup of the city. In fact, he has gone all the way into neo-Nazism. Val never directly challenges Mike’s harmful views, but she does ponder that “He is the only beautiful thing in her life, as well as being the cause of all the ugly ones” (page 163). After finishing Val’s story, what do you think of this statement about Mike? What does their marriage become for her?

8. When we meet Ben early in his life, he’s on Largactil (an antipsychotic) and in an old-fashioned insane asylum. Later, he works for the city bus system and has an addiction to marijuana. The author does not detail the name of his mental state, but what do you suppose he is dealing with, and how do you see him growing in self-sufficiency?

9. Later on, Ben has met Marsha and appears to be in a very happy marriage with a woman who has a different cultural and religious background than him. What do you make of his conversion experience to her lifestyle and religion?

10. Val and Jo are the main women in Light Perpetual, and their lives couldn’t have ended up differently. What are the differences in their motivations in life, and how did those drive them in such different directions?

11. On pages 242–57, we get a glimpse of what Alec’s later years have become—a stay-at-home grandad who considers himself “domesticated” while his wife Sandra goes out and works. What is Alec’s perception of himself? What makes him happy about where he is, and what is pulling him away?

12. Once you’ve finished the book, compare and contrast the lives and careers of Vern and Alec. How are their motivations different? Where has that landed each of them?

13. The book ends with Ben. What do you make of the almost hymn-like last passage, as Ben slowly dies? Why do you think Spufford chose to finish the novel with Ben’s story?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. There are five different protagonists in Light Perpetual: Jo, Val, Vern, Alec, and Ben. As you read the book and are introduced to each character, write a brief character sketch about each of them (any defining physical features, clues about their livelihoods, and implications of their romantic relationships).

2. On page 262, when Vern is listening to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the car with his daughter Becky, he observes that the singer is “a woman with some heft on her, too, a woman with an actual figure.” As a group, look up photos of women and men in London from the early 1940s to 2009. How do beauty and body standards change over time?

3. Once you’ve finished Light Perpetual, watch the film Billy Elliot. The plot involves a young boy coming of age in England and watching his family’s involvement in the 1984–85 miners’ strike. Discuss how the working class pictured in Billy Elliot is similar to and different from the working class in Light Perpetual (particularly the story of Alec and his son Gary).

4. Throughout the book, the music the characters make and listen to provides a soundtrack. You can find most of the songs on YouTube or search on Spotify for the Light Perpetual playlist. Listen to these songs and discuss what the music tells you about how London has altered since 1944.
Photograph by Bart Koetsier

Francis Spufford is the author of five highly praised books of nonfiction. His first book, I May Be Some Time, won the Writers’ Guild Award for Best Nonfiction Book of 1996, the Banff Mountain Book Prize, and a Somerset Maugham Award. It was followed by The Child That Books BuiltBackroom BoysRed Plenty (which was translated into nine languages), and most recently, Unapologetic. His first novel, Golden Hill, won the Costa First Novel Award. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He teaches writing at Goldsmiths College and lives near Cambridge. His most recent novel is Light Perpetual.

"A God’s-eye meditation on mutability and loss. . . . an extraordinary novel in terms of its variety of character, symphonic language and spiritual reach. . . . [Spufford is] such a beautiful writer, casually stunning in his language and perceptions. . . . Light Perpetual is a miracle, not only of art but of encompassing empathy.” —Maureen Corrigan, The Wall Street Journal

"Offers a moving view of how people confront the gap between their expectations and their reality." The New Yorker

"Vividly imagined. . . . Spufford is a fluent writer, bringing a deft touch to the emotional force fields of parents and their children. . . . richly drawn.” —Christopher Benfy, The New York Times Book Review

"Heady, vivid, ecstatically precise. . . . uncannily good. . . . Light Perpetual is the sort of novel that’s carried by its descriptions, passages that transform the ordinary into the transcendent and leave us marveling.” —Laura Miller, Slate

“Magical . . . stunning. . . . Thanks to Spufford’s narrative wizardry, all five protagonists come to vivid life in this spectacularly moving story.” —Publishers Weekly, STARRED review 

“[A] richly imagined mosaic. . . . [T]he characters are complex, engaging, memorable. Spufford does indeed bring them to life. He also brings depth and detail to every vignette, from a boy’s view of soccer to hot-lead typesetting, a neo-Nazi concert, or a trip on a double-decker bus. . . . Entertaining and unconventional.” Kirkus Reviews, STARRED review

“Graceful. . . . Light Perpetual derives considerable power from dramatizing the experiences its characters missed: the chance to build and lose a fortune, to see one’s dreams realized or else rerouted toward more modest achievements, or just to hold a loved one’s hand." BookPage, STARRED review 

"Five children die in 1944, but imagined glimpses of their unlived lives generate powerful moments of reflection and redemption... Spufford’s second novel swells with the same lively, intimate prose as his celebrated debut, The Golden Hill (2017). But its unconventional framing and larger, more contemporary themes makes it an even stronger book." Booklist, STARRED review

“I was reminded of the death-defying bent of two other recent novels—Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 — both of which share with Light Perpetual a kind of radiant goodness, a sense that the world is a better place for having such books within them…. Light Perpetual’s brilliance lies in the emotion and drama it wrings from the ordinary—but profoundly meaningful—experiences of its protagonists.” Financial Times

“With bold metaphysical engineering, the Golden Hill author conjures miraculous everyday existence…Light Perpetual is something new and brave. With exceptional care, with a loving shrewdness . . . , Spufford catches the voices and hopes of five . . . Londoners, and the people who change and shape them.” The Guardian

“Radiant with hope and grace and courage . . . I loved it.” —Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent

“Dazzling ... [Spufford is] one of the finest prose stylists of his generation. If his stories grip, his sentences practically glow.”  —The Times (UK)

“A brilliant, attention-grabbing, capacious experiment with fiction.” —Observer (UK)

“Boundlessly rich.” —The Telegraph (UK)

“Gleams with literary finesse. Keen perception and exact verbal flair...abound...The novel’s overarching feat is to resurrect with marvellous vitality not just its central five figures, but six transformative decades of London life.” —Sunday Times (UK)

"Inspired by the 1944 bombing of a Woolworth’s that killed 168 people, Spufford . . . imagines how the lives of five children who died in the blast might have turned out if they had lived. The novel revisits each character roughly every 15 years, giving a window into postwar London throughout the decades." The New York Times, "15 New Books to Watch For in May"

More books from this author: Francis Spufford