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An engrossing novel set in an actual wartime tragedy
on 20 December 2010
The novel is based around the report of an inquiry into the deaths from suffocation, in 1943, of 173 people in a crush at the entrance to an underground station used as an air-raid shelter in Bethnal Green, East London. The siren had sounded but no air-raid materialised. A respected magistrate, Laurence Dunne, was commissioned to write a report for the government and this he did in three weeks, interviewing witnesses, rescuers and officials.
Predominantly through the eyes of eight-year old Tilley, her mother Ada, young clerk Bertram, vicar McNeely, and warden Low we are taken through the events and emotions and fears of the period. Thirty years on Tilley's adopted brother, Paul, is making a documentary film of the tragedy and interviews the report's author. The conflicts between the elderly retired magistrate who wanted his report to bring an understanding of the tragedy rather than allot blame and the young filmmaker who still sees in black and white, truth and wrongness, are well observed. "Your parents said that I knew the crowd wasn't guilty. ... What's the opposite of guilty?', "Innocent?" "Well, they weren't that, either."
Herbert Morrison, the government minister remembered only for his shelter, sat on the report and it wasn't published until after the war. In 1943 I was seven, lived in the London suburbs only about 16 miles from Bethnal Green, was an avid listener to the news on the wireless (and slept many nights in a Morrison shelter). Yet the real tragic events described were new to me. Bad news did not escape government censorship. Likewise a first to me was a description of sewing circles making topographical quilts of German landscapes for the Royal Air Force.
Jessica Francis Kane has woven her characters, their feelings, emotions, reasons, opinions and fears into a compelling novel which I found difficult to put down.