Thursday, 1 March 2012

'The Report - a novel', by Jessica Francis Kane

‘The Report’ describes and elaborates upon the events and aftermath of the night of 3rd March 1943, when 173 people were crushed to death at the entrance to Bethnal Green tube station. It was the worst British civilian disaster of the Second World War.
The tragedy itself is dealt with briefly. Rather, the novel focuses on its effects on local people connected to it by experience, work or family ties, on the subsequent inquiry led by Lawrence Dunne, and on the attempts some 30 years later of a young film director to make a television documentary about what really happened, what the inquiry said and what it left unsaid. The narrative switches between decades and between people, with the planning, the process and the testimonies of Dunne’s inquiry lacing them together.
Although the book deals with deep emotions it isn‘t sentimental, and although its subject is disaster it isn’t spectacular. It infiltrates rather than seizes the imagination. Above all it is concerned with the feelings and motivations of ordinary, decent people trying to make sense of the incomprehensibility of a domestic tragedy within the wider suffering of war: those who witnessed or survived the crush, a shelter warden, a police constable, the local vicar, local officials; Dunne himself, who is both an establishment figure and close to the people he lives among; and Paul, the film director of 30 years later, who tries to discover and revive what time and forgetting had eroded.
Jessica Francis Kane deftly paints a series of impressions of the wartime East End, its streets, homes and people, that amount to more than their sum. Although there is a quiet significance and nobility in many of the characters, she is not nostalgic: we see that Dunne was challenged not just by the Government’s wish to preserve morale at all costs, but also by his own desire to obscure a detail of the disaster for what he perceived to be a greater good, through suppressing a fact which might have been thought by others to betray a less admirable trait of his community.
This hints at the moral complexities and personal fallibilities with which we all have to deal, and for which we should not be judged too harshly in trying to accommodate. This is not just an evocative book, but a valuable one.

'The Report - a novel', by Jessica Francis Kane, Portobello Books

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