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'The Report': A Tragic And True WWII Page-Turner

Sep 11, 2010

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The stairs at the entrance of the tube station shelter at Bethnal Green, London, on March 5, 1943. Jessica Francis Kane

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On March 3, 1943, on a night when England expected a horrific retaliatory bombing from Germany, 173 people died in London's East End. Not a single bomb fell that night, however. Instead, the victims, the vast majority of whom were women and children, died on the stairwell leading to an air-raid shelter inside a tube station in Bethnal Green. In a matter of seconds, "there was a solid wall of people filling in the space between the bottom step and the ceiling, horizontal layers of people like a cross-section of the earth's crust."

That night of horror would eventually lead to an official inquiry. The chief investigator, Laurence Dunne, would produce an unusually well-written report attempting to answer why so many died on such an otherwise quiet evening. In her alternately tender and sorrowful first novel, The Report, Jessica Francis Kane beautifully illuminates the story of this true tragedy. Kane meditates on how the victims' families, and the survivors and witnesses of such horror, are long affected, and how we expect truth — official truth — to somehow make sense of events for which there really isn't a clean-cut explanation or an obvious target of blame.

The Report moves among the night of the tragedy, its immediate aftermath, Dunne's inquiry and the 30th anniversary of the disaster. A few of the story's principals are now elderly or grown adults — namely Tilly Barber, whose mother couldn't save her baby sister from the crush of people, and her younger brother, Paul, who has sought out Dunne for a documentary he wants to direct on the disaster. As we shift between settings and eras, and as we follow the lives of those affected by the mass deaths — from air raid wardens and local constables to harried mothers and disoriented reverends — Kane uses quotidian detail to evoke a time of deprivation and exhaustion among Londoners. She also uses her keen eye for telling detail to create a gentle hush around the lives of her protagonists, delineating a bubble of loss they seem to float in.

Yet the novel isn't precious or self-absorbed. Rather, The Report is unflinching even as it is generous. It's also a page-turner, skillfully deploying a new fact or a different perspective about the disaster, propelling the narrative. As our curiosity mounts about the truth of what really happened that night, Kane keeps alive the question of how much truth any person — or any society — can handle. Ultimately, do the varied parts add up to an intelligible sum? Is such a thing even possible?

By making us see the dignity of people reckoning with grief and guilt, The Report unveils verities no government body can ever deliver. "Surviving some disasters," as Tilly's mother thinks to herself, "you don't get to be happy again. You simply change, and then you decide if you can live with the change." This is the heart of Kane's fictional inquiry, one exalting the power and perhaps necessity of literature to make sense of the truth.

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The Report: A Novel
By Jessica Francis Kane
Paperback, 256 pages
Graywolf Press
List price: $15
Read An Excerpt

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