“Is a mistake always an accident? An accident always a mistake?”
I wouldn’t necessarily say that Jessica Francis Kane’s The Report is getting a lot of buzz, but there is a low hum building around it. And that hum should only get stronger in the upcoming months. It’s one of seven novels shortlisted for the 2010 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize; it’s also scheduled to be a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection this Winter. And because it presents as a work of historical fiction, it will appeal to the general reading public. A more cerebral reader will be intrigued to find that Kane has used her story to explore moral and psychological questions that remain relevant even in our current 24-hour news cycle. In short, The Report has a little something for everyone.
Based on an actual WW2 civilian tragedy: 173 men, women & children died in the working class parish of Bethnal Green. 3 days before, the Allies had bombed Berlin. London was on edge and expecting a reprisal attack at any time. But the German planes didn’t come the night of March 3rd, 1943, despite the air raid sirens going off and sending the people for shelter in the underground tube station. As the first people fell while descending the stairs the already agitated crowd continued to push forward. When it was over the tangle of bodies formed a wall that reached from the floor of the landing to the ceiling – blocking the stairwell completely. Unbelievable as it sounds – the 173 deaths were all caused by asphyxiation. Magistrate Laurence Dunne, a historical figure Kane uses as her protagonist, was assigned the job of finding out what happened. The people demanded that there be an inquiry.
The story jumps back and forth in a time line beginning on the day of the event and stretching out to the 30th anniversary. A large portion of the text is dialogue. Kane has an ear for the way people speak and Dunne’s interviews with the survivors read like transcripts. There is a sense of the tedious sifting of information such an investigation requires as the same questions are repeated again and again, the answers varying depending on who is doing the answering. These exchanges are some of the most enjoyable, and enlightening, moments in the novel.
30 years later we see Dunne on the other side of the desk, being questioned by a determined young documentary filmmaker (with a link to the tragedy) about what was in the final report… and what wasn’t. As more details emerge on what has come to be called “The Bethnal Green Tragedy”, the reader can’t help being pulled further into the lives and motivations of everyone involved. We learn that the neighborhood had a growing refugee population. That there was an… if not a strong then at least underlying… anti-semetic paranoia in the community. How much, if anything, did this influence what happened on March 3rd?
Kane does so many things well in this novel it’s hard to focus on just one. Not only does she portray a stressed community who has been dealt the proverbial last straw, she convincingly depicts individual reactions and survivor’s guilt. I’m still haunted by the relatively minor character of the shelter Warden – a man convinced that the entire tragedy hinged on whether or not the light bulb in the entrance to the shelter was lit. Kane also gives a moving description of the psychotic break of an already tortured young man unable to deal with the possibility that he, unaware of what was happening, was a part of the crowd pushing to enter the shelter. Both men are realistically drawn, persuasive because of the understatement Kane uses to describe their situation and emotions.
Dunne looked down. “Your parents said I knew the crowd wasn’t guilty. Did Ada say that?”
“What’s the opposite of guilty?” Dunne asked.
“Innocent?” Under Dunne’s scrutiny, Paul couldn’t suppress the question mark.
“Well, they weren’t that, either.”
Can telling the truth sometimes do more harm than good? Do intentions carry the same weight as actions? What about redemption? Or is justice black and white, requiring someone be to blame? The book asks all these questions and more. I recommend it for anyone with an interest in the London Blitz and the WW2 period. Jessica Francis Kane has written a historical novel that takes the most basic requirement of the genre – transporting the reader into another period – and raises the bar slightly higher for those who come after.
…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 the coupons. They spoke about the public morale, when what you remembered were the faces. Try as they might, they heard only a chord or two, while the whole symphony still roared in your head…
The Report somehow manages to play for its’ readers the full symphony of motivations, emotions, personalities and perspectives; all revolving around a single, tragic event. Yet the novel has meaning beyond the incident in Bethnal Green. Combine that with strong writing, skillful plotting and absolutely brilliant pacing – The Report has the potential to be this Fall’s sleeper hit. (And is a great pick for book groups looking for a novel with multiple discussion points).
Publisher: Greywolf Press, New York. (2010)
ISBN: 978 1 55597 565 4