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A compelling portrait of postwar London
on 7 May 2013
Sian Busby's final book is a tremendous achievement both as a novel and as an example of what an indomitable spirit can achieve. First, the book itself: it's a very good read, with a strong narrative and a stronger sense of place and time: north London, as tatty and battered as its inhabitants immediately after the end of the war. The body of a woman is found on wasteland, the police investigating wearily assume it's a sexual assault that went wrong. But it turns out not to be the case, so who is the dead woman? A prostitute? If not, how did a "respectable" woman end up strangled?
Busby's characters are a bit squalid, like their physical surroundings; morally compromised (petty criminals, fences, spivs, sleeping with people they shouldn't) but one of Busby's hallmarks as a writer is her empathy with, understanding of and compassion for people and choices that many would dismiss with a judgmental word or two. And so you find yourself caring about the war-traumatised thief, about the diminished husband, about the hard-edged victim, about her brittle, feckless lodger, about the weary police officer who can't do a good enough job.
As well as standing as an achievement in its own right as wonderfully conceived and executed book, A Commonplace Killing is also an extraordinary achievement for Busby, who was dying of cancer as it was being completed. When she died in September 2012, her husband, BBC business editor Robert Peston, found the final part of the book handwritten in her notebook; he transcribed the final pages so that the book could be published posthumously. As he explains in the foreword to the novel, "I did not know, until reading handwriting as familiar as my own and hearing her voice in my head, that she had finished this exquisite work."
Where Peston's transcription takes over is noted in the book; I'm not sure that a reader would otherwise spot the join. Perhaps the final few pages are a little more sparse than the prose that precedes it, but that sparseness is appropriate to the bleakness of the end of the book. The love with which the book was completed gives A Commonplace Killing a redemptive and emotional power that the narrative itself deliberately doesn't provide: there's little redemptive about the narrative that unfolds.
Any book is a labour of love. This one, which stands on its own two feet as a very good novel by any standards, is doubly so, given the circumstances in which it was written and the circumstances in which it was finished. I'd recommend it without the coda of its completion; the achievement that it represents makes it outstanding.