Friday, November 5, 2010

*The Report, by Jessica Francis Kane

Graywolf Press
240 pp.

Based on a true story, The Report is a novel centered on an event which happened on March 3, 1943 at the Bethnal Green Tube station, which at the time also served as the local bomb shelter. Sir Laurence Dunne, the magistrate who wrote the report on the incident noted that “the stairway was converted from a corridor to a charnel house in ten to 15 seconds,” when one hundred seventy-three people died in a human crush on the stairs near the entrance to the shelter, asphyxiated to death.  There were no bombs heading for or exploding in London, so how did this happen?   The author, Jessica Frances Kane, has created a fictional account of that day and its aftermath in this splendid novel, which not only recreates this event, but asks some tough questions along the way that are in many ways still pertinent today.

The story begins with the arrival of a young man who has been trying to arrange an interview with Dunne for a 30-year retrospective documentary on the Bethnal Green incident.  It then moves backward in time and the major characters who are involved in the tragedy are introduced.  These characters are all too real, making it easy for the reader to become deeply involved in the story on a very human level as events proceed up to March 3rd and then afterward.  The way the author has written this novel also provides a glimpse of the wartime problems and frustrations of those at the London homefront – the mistrust of refugees, the food shortages, the years of ongoing blackouts (one character remarked that her beloved baby sister had never even seen the moon in the night sky), the sheer endurance involved in trying to hold on until the war is over, etc., and the differences made simply based on where you lived in the city.  As events are slowly revealed and unraveled, the characters become much more developed and come into their own and their motivations behind their actions also become clearer.  They move on from that fateful night on to the aftermath, when individuals, families and the community are left to cope with their grief or other feelings about the tragedy, along  with the progress of the inquiry led by Magistrate Dunne. Interspersed with the core story of the event, the story also moves in and out of the present of 1973, where people have definitely not forgotten, and where many of them are still dealing with the impact of this singular event, especially Dunne.  

There are many realistic observations made by the characters that exemplify Kane’s excellent writing.  For example, in a scene set in 1973, Dunne notes of the young man who came to interview him:
 …talking to him was like talking to any young person about the war years; they spoke from a background of black-and-white pictures, while your memories were very much in color. They asked about the rationing, while you saw coupons. They spoke about the public morale, when what you remembered were the faces. Try as they might, they only heard a chord or two, while the whole symphony still roared in your head.

The author became interested in the story when she discovered Tragedy at Bethnal Green, 1943: Report on an Inquiry into the Accident at Bethnal Green Tube Station Shelter (Uncovered Editions) at the British Library bookshop, and then went on to read the full transcript of the inquiry into the incident at the National Archives. She relates in the Author’s Note at the end of the book that news of the terrible event was “kept secret for days” and that magistrate Laurence Dunne pursued an investigation, published a report, and then the government suppressed it until the war’s end.

 The Report is (unbelievably) this writer’s first novel and you would be hard pressed as a reader to read this book and not end up forming your own conclusions as to what really happened on that fateful night. It draws you in from the start and does not lessen its hold until the very end, not only because of the subject matter, but also because it is beautifully constructed. I most definitely recommend this book – and I hope it does well with readership. It is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year. If you want to read a compelling work of historical fiction, this book is one that should not be missed.

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