A novel of great potential and one so well recieved…so why did it fall so short of expectations?
When I first came across this book and read its synopsis I have to admit I was left feeling a little ashamed. Why had I never heard about the tragic event that took place at the Bethnal Green tube station during WW2? When 173 people were killed in mass suffocation whilst making their way into the tube station turned air raid shelter, this on a night when not one bomb was realised in the area.
Indeed this was the worst civilian accident to happen in WW2 so my ignorance surrounding the event shocked me and certainly compelled me to learn more about this event. However thanks to Jessica Francis Kane’s well researched novel I was soon reading about one of the most shocking tragedies to come out of the war.
The book goes back to the night in question when a community of people hardened and used to the traumas of war made their way to their local air raid shelter in the underground. However this night something went wrong, a staggering number of people were killed in a mass crush.
But why when they were so adapt to air raids? Was it mass hysteria? Did someone, as the persistent rumours keep suggesting, push another person? Or were unannounced anti aircraft weapons being tested that night, setting of the crowd?
Throughout the book this story is told in an intermittent fashion switching from past to present. In the past we join a younger Laurence Dunne. Dunne is a magistrate who was actually given the responsibility at the time of the accident of compiling the report that explained the events that lead to this tragedy.
We follow Dunne throughout much of the story on his journey of interviewing not only the survivors of the accident but also medical experts, police officers and air raid shelter wardens who were involved in the accident in Bethnal Green.
We meet characters like Ada Barber, a mother who loses her daughter whilst trying to protect both of her children on this fatal night. We see the after affects upon the shelters local warden who was in charge, and the pressure felt by the communities priest who is trying to give his people the guidance to deal with this ordeal.
Flashing forward to the present day Dunne is still a prominent figure in the book. However he is now an older man, left to muse on the iconic report that he produced.
When a young man named Paul Barber turns up on his doorstep though, asking Dunne to participate in a retrospective TV documentary about the accident and his report, Dunne is faced with re visiting old events.
Not only is the book informative is it also thought provoking. It asks us lots of questions about how a community who have survived so much devastation should deal with this pain. Who is to blame? Should anyone be blamed in fact? Or should everyone try and stand together, accept their individual role within the tragedy?
The novel displays the complexities of all of these questions and it shows just how desperate people will be to make sense of such an unfathomable incident.
These are the things that the novel did well for me. However there were disappointedly, things that it did not do so well.
I didn’t connect well with most of the novels characters. I actually felt very detached and removed from the book and it’s events. Although of the characters their suffering is displayed for us and is conceivable, yet I felt I was only seeing it and not truly feeling it.
The character of Paul was a source of great frustration for me. Firstly he greatly interested me and I found his stance in the book as a survivor living in the present day very intriguing. How frustrating I found it then when we saw such little glimpses of him in the book. I was hoping for a more in depth portrayal of his character, a greater insight to his reaction to the war. Instead I felt I’d barley met him.
I’ve reflected a lot on this book since finishing it and I have wondered if perhaps Kane felt the subject matter spoke for itself and was tragic and sad enough on its own; without the need for sub plots, poetic language and deep human portrayals. The things that I felt were missing in the book.
But then if the theme of the book is strong enough then when did I still feel detached and removed from what I was reading? Why weren’t my emotions stirred more?
That said I would still suggest you give this book a try. I did like the thoughts that it evoked in me and the way it had me considering similar tragedies of this kind in a new light. Kane has an influence that is not imposing but is certainly provoking.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this book as my own reaction was so mixed. Did you have similar problems to me in connecting with the book? Or did you find it touching and easy to fall into?