Regular visitors may have noticed that I’m much more of a novella than a chunkster kind of reader, favouring concision over what so often turns into waffle, but I was attracted to Stuart Evers’ The Blind Light by its premise despite its 540+ pages. Spanning six decades, Evers’ novel tells the story of post-war Britain through two families, both from opposite ends of the social spectrum, beginning with the friendship between Drummond and Carter formed during their National Service training in 1959.
Drum and Carter are polar opposites: Drum, a union man, quiet and proud of his job at Ford’s Dagenham factory while the extrovert, privileged Carter has been sent down from Oxford. When Drum tips Carter the wink at a card school where he’s spied a cheat, he saves Carter’s bacon and makes a friend for life. Carter uses his connections to land them positions in the catering corps, sparing them the dangers of Britain’s various conflicts although their derring-do stories become a double act, popular with awestruck new recruits. They’re stationed in Cumbria, the site of a ‘doom town’ set up to simulate the aftermath of a nuclear strike. By the time their National Service is over Drum is engaged to Gwen and Carter to Daphne, despite his constant philandering.
Each returns to their very different lives but their friendship continues. Children are born, crises are weathered. Drum becomes a member of the Civil Defence, his life led on constant alert for the catastrophe he’s sure will happen. When the privacy of Carter’s palatial family home comes under threat from property development, he turns to Drum, struggling with the privations of a round of strikes, solving both their problems by engineering the purchase of the neighbouring farm. As their children grow up alongside each other – Drum’s children testing his strict limits, Carter’s enjoying their family’s privilege – an uneasy friendship grows between Gwen and Daphne. The events of one dramatic night in 1980 stretch the bonds between these two families to breaking point, the repercussions of which will come home to roost when the novel ends in 2019.
When a novelist sets about telling a story spanning sixty years, I imagine it’s all too easy to turn it into a year-by-year narrative. Evers’ approach is much more effective, taking a series of crucial events which echo his theme around which he unfolds the two families’ stories, shifting perspectives between characters. I grew up during the Cold War when the possibility of a nuclear calamity felt very real. Evers depicts that constant background hum extraordinarily well. The theme of class and socioeconomic division is smartly explored through the enduring friendship between two men who would never have known each other had it not been for National Service. The result is a richly textured, immersive novel, full of convincing characters whose stories echo that of their changing country, and it has an immensely satisfying ending. Chunksters may not be my usual book of choice but when they’re of this calibre I’m more than happy to read them.
Picador: London 9781529030976 544 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)