If I were making a “top 10” list of things I never knew about the Second World War, the subject of The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
would be the top of the list.
One evening in March 1943 the air raid siren sounded in Bethnal Green, and as usual the local people headed for the shelter in the tube station. Somehow though, someone tripped over near the bottom of the stairs and more people tripped. There was a crush, in which 173 people, mostly women and children, died. This is thought to be the largest single loss of civilian life during World War II, and also the largest loss of life in a single incident in the London Underground network.
This book tells the story of the incident, but also of a report that was written by a Metropolitan judge, Laurence Rivers Dunne, afterwards. It switches between the 1943 aftermath of the incident, and conversations in the 1970s between an elderly Dunne and a young film maker who plans to make a documentary about the incident.
I was given this book for Christmas. Ordinarily, having no clue about the incident at Bethnal Green, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. I’m glad I received it though; it’s a cracking read. The author notes at the end of the book that although the crush and the report are both fact, her story is fiction. Although it’s a novel, it gives a fantastic insight into life in the Blitz, and how people would have coped with the tragedy.
This is a great novel which has the perfect balance of historical narrative and human interest. It’s interesting to look at lives during the Second World War, but also how people respond to tragedy, how the government responded, and the ideas of collective guilt, crowds and the search or need for blame. It’s a really interesting read from so many different points of view and I should imagine it was very interesting to research.
The one thing I found difficult about this book was what I find difficult about all historical fiction – how much is fiction, and how much actually happened? There are several aspects of the story (which I won’t mention here, for fear of ruining the book for others) that I’d really love to know about, one way or the other. I’d like to think they were true, but you don’t know which is which. I’m the sort of person who would like all historical fiction to be annotated with notes: “I made this bit up” or “this person existed but I made up the bit about the red dress.” I find myself endlessly bothered while reading books like this, because I don’t know how much I should believe.
No matter how much of the story is true, this book serves as the perfect humanisation of dry historical accounts. I read the Wikipedia entry for the disaster and I can safely say I learned more about life in wartime Britain from the book – which, I suppose, is the point.