Portobello, £12.99 Order for £11.69 ((free p&p)from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Report, By Jessica Francis Kane
A wartime tragedy revisited
Tuesday 29 March 2011
Jessica Francis Kane begins her novel with the preface of The 9/11 Commission Report: "We want to note what we have done, and not done." Her story focuses on another human tragedy, in the East End of London on 3 March 1943, when 173 residents of Bethnal Green rushing into the tube station-turned-air-raid shelter were suffocated in a Hillsborough-like crush. It was the biggest civilian disaster during the Second World War; no bombs were dropped on Bethnal Green that night. A private investigation into the incident conducted by a magistrate, Laurence Dunne, was commissioned but suppressed by the government until after the war.
Kane's debut novel shows that the handling of a public disaster is burdened by its own politics, so that reporting its causes and effects is never entirely objective nor comprehensive. Those who commission the investigation require certain questions to be answered and, often, others to be left alone. So it was in the case of the Bethnal Green disaster, according to Kane's fiction. The events are revisited by a film-maker, Paul Barber, whose adoptive family was involved and who three decades later begins to unravel what the report left out, and why.
Kane's strengths lie in her tidy, well-made plot, and her theme of anti-Jewish prejudice triggered by the disaster. Simmering tensions between the local community and immigrant Jews are heightened after rumours spread that the crush was a result of "Jewish panic". An angry public is hungry for blame: "You want someone to admit responsibility, someone held accountable."
It is a courageous venture for an American author to write about a British, Blitz-based tragedy. Kane gets it right for the most part, Cockney slang included, with very few slips, although a character jarringly retires to a "den" at one point. Yet the emotional impact of the disaster remains maddeningly distant.
There are some powerful testimonies from witnesses, survivors (including the guilt-ridden), those who lost their loved ones among the 84 women, 27 men and 62 children found "suffocated in a heap". There are moving details – of mothers seconds from death managing to pass their babies across the crowd to safety – but not nearly enough. Even central characters remain at a remove, so that one almost wishes for more flashbacks, however lazy a literary device this may be, to lend greater emotional depth to a truly bizarre and horrifying story.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Snoop Dogg and Jared Leto buy a stake in Reddit as A-list invests $50m
- 2 HeForShe campaign: Iceland to follow up Emma Watson speech with UN women's rights conference – for men only
- 3 Car tax disc changes: Two days to go - and they affect you much more than just not displaying a piece of paper
- 4 Ed Sheeran dedicates song to David Cameron
- 5 Now we know whose fault it is if you end up being murdered in Thailand
Why do we like making lists?
Ed Sheeran dedicates song to David Cameron
Glastonbury 2015 registration: How to get tickets for next year's festival
Kylie Minogue Kiss Me Once tour, London O2 - review: Pop princess still reigns supreme
Miranda Hart and Sarah Millican named highest-selling female comedians
Isis, we are told, is a 'clear and dangerous threat to our way of life'. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it
Exclusive: 'Putin's Russia has been my biggest regret,' says Nato's outgoing Secretary General
The Osborne Ultimatum: Chancellor’s benefits freeze bombshell will affect ten million households
There’s no excuse for Dave Lee Travis’s behaviour, but we need to keep a sense of proportion
Mark Reckless becomes second Tory MP to defect to Ukip in a month
Should gay sex be illegal? 16% of Britons think so
- < Previous
- Next >