The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
July 19, 2012 § 2 Comments
During the Second World War, Bethnal Green witnessed the biggest civilian disaster of the war when 173 people died in a crush at the entrance to a tube station bomb shelter. In The Report, Jessica Francis Kane has fictionalised the event itself, the writing of a report about the disaster, and new information that changes perspectives thirty years later. The book opens with the crush itself, then spends the rest of the novel with a large cast of characters, from the magistrate charged with writing the report to the survivors, and from the police and wardens responsible for the station to the government officials who refused to listen to the requests for improvements to the dangerous entrance. A large part of this is done, successfully, through sparse transcripts of the inquiry. The book also flashes between the contemporary events and the preparations for a documentary film retrospective, revealing shades of meaning and significance.
Unusually for me, I read the blurb before I began the book, and began by being annoyed that it gave away the main event of the novel. Kane doesn’t rush through telling the story of the crush, but because I already knew what was going to happen I wished that some horror had been kept back, to deepen rather than simply elaborate on the information that has been so easily given away to the reader. This meant that, early on, I couldn’t see how the novel was going to sustain itself for the next 200 pages.
I gave the book the benefit of the doubt and another half an hour, by which time some mysterious magic had been worked and the book had become as compelling as a crime novel, the sort of book you carry from room to room while you pretend to fulfil your household obligations.
Kane has really done a good job—from the perspective of someone who didn’t live through it—of creating the period without overdoing it or strangling it with research. The damaged people, the daily tragedy, the coexistence of anger, resignation and deep, deep sadness. One of the most telling and most terrible moments is a tiny little exchange in an orphanage, when one bereaved mother adopts a baby and wonders about its name.
[The orphanage mother] was touching the baby’s cheek. “What about Justin?” she said, and [the mother] was very surprised to see that she was crying.
“Did you know a Justin?”
Mrs. Barton-Malow nodded. “It’s such a nice name.”
And that’s it. That’s it! Then they move on to something else. But we already know that Mrs Barton-Malow has lost a son, so it’s a perfect tiny encapsulation of the closed-off nature of how people had to experience their own tragedies, the terribly universal and democratic nature of bereavement and grief during the war. Nobody was special for having lost someone. Nobody can be roused out of their shell-shocked torpor for mere ordinary sadness. It’s only the extremes of terror, for example when the news breaks that some of the dead were the only surviving relatives of people serving overseas–whom the government hasn’t yet informed, that people are able to see this as something beyond the daily misery of the war.
The Report is a quiet book, doing its work effectively and unobtrusively. Kane’s writing is perfectly suited to the task at hand—clear, precise and evocative. Above all, this is a humane observation of duty, suffering, guilt and blame.