Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

The Report
by Jessica Francis Kane

“It’s my practice to always hope people aren’t as bad as the worst thing they do.”

Where lies the line between blame and consequence? Between truth and peace? Jessica Francis Kane’s The Report dives into these questions of magnitude, and despite having no easy answers, the result is quite satisfying.

Centered around Bethnal Green, London, the story concerns one of the greatest civilian tragedies during World War II. One March evening in 1943, 173 people died from asphyxiation in an underground air raid shelter. With no bombs having fallen that night, it becomes magistrate Laurence Dunne’s job to investigate why such a terrible incident occurred. Dunne and his subsequent report existed, and Kane creates remarkable, authentic-feeling characters around the event.

Through the eyes of eight-year-old Tilly Barber and her mother Ada, we see some of what happened in the tube station stairwell. A woman falls, the crowd congests, pressure builds, and Tilly loses her four-year-old sister, Emma.

But something was happening: people were falling onto the last step above the landing, and she felt Emma’s small hand slip. Ada heard her cry, “Mama!” — then she was gone. The stairwell seemed to swallow her; the weight of the falling crowd sucked her in. “My daughter’s in there!” Ada screamed, and she clawed at the people in her way.

While certainly sad and inspiring me to hug my kids extra, Kane does not deliberately manipulate the tear ducts — and I say this as someone who cannot handle books dealing in the mistreatment of children. The writing, as Dunne attempts to do with his report, honors the facts and feelings as the characters know them, but it does not overdramatize. The tragedy and the altered way of life during the war is drama enough. Though the United States, with the assistance of other nations, is currently engaged in war, we do not know the same level of sacrifice our grandparents did. It was, of course, not so long ago that millions were murdered for their differences, and homes blacked out their windows to avoid becoming bomb targets. Kane captures the hope and hopelessness of those times, as well as the annoyance and exhaustion. Mothers distract themselves from worry by sewing, and everyone spends more time down the pub. Even weather reports are banned so as not to give useful information to the enemy, and everyone operates under the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next.

One would not think that the process of a government report would make for riveting reading, and yet here, it is. Dunne’s neutral inquiry allows the interviewees’ views to take precedence. People who have survived a disaster do not always make for reliable witnesses, but their reactions do reveal the content of their character. Suppressed fears and prejudices become more obvious, and the tipping point between outrage and numbness becomes pronounced. There are people who want to place blame and punish their pain away, while others would simply like to forget. Dunne’s report, he discovers, cannot be unsympathetic, but it also cannot cause more unrest. The entire book wrestles with internal crises of this nature.

Being an American and not really being much of a war history buff, I had not heard of the Bethnal Green tragedy before picking up The Report. I’m sure in certain circles, it is a case of “how can you not know?” but I think people often forget the damage England sustained over the course of World War II. For them, the war was not across the ocean. Though I don’t know from personal experience what this experience would have been like, Kane does a great job of immersing one in the smaller details of wartime sacrifice, without making it seem like a dry history lesson. It is a successful book on many levels, and certainly worth a look.


Full disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book. I thank them for including me on their list of book blogger contacts, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.

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