“The appropriate authorities will probe, appropriately, the matter to the fullest.”
The Report, written by Jessica Francis Kane, is a novel which attempts to understand the real-life tragedy that took place in 1943 during WWII. While most of us think of air raids wreaking damage on cities and their populations, the novel examines an extremely bizarre, tragic event which left 173 people dead as they sought shelter from an air raid that never happened. This tragedy is known as the Bethnal Green disaster, and here’s a brief outline of events:
During WWII, on the night of March 3, 1943, people crowded into London’s Bethnal Green tube station which served as an air raid shelter. That evening 173 people were killed–not from bombs falling from enemy planes–but from asphyxiation as they tried to enter the underground tube station by its sole entrance–a series of steps divided by a landing. The accident was terrible, but was it preventable? The tube station was supposed to be a refuge and instead it became a death trap. What went wrong? The events of the next few days compounded the tragedy as the government first claimed that the deaths were caused by enemy bombing, and when that didn’t fly and the people didn’t shut up and go away, then came the “hurried, private” Gowers inquiry which was put together with lightening speed over a three-day period. The grieving families demanded answers, and magistrate Lawrence Dunne was appointed the task of conducting a sealed inquiry into the incident.
The novel goes back and forth in time from that fateful evening to thirty years later when an enthusiastic and ambitious documentary film maker, Paul Barber, seeks out Lawrence Dunne–now ‘Sir’ Lawrence Dunne–a lonely old man who lives alone with his memories and his various awards. Dunne’s house has the un-used, unwanted feel of a museum that’s never visited. Paul notes:
“The house was grand but overstuffed, decorated not quite as the country retreat he’d expected. Instead it felt like a room holding the furniture and memorabilia of a life lived a long time ago somewhere else.”
The plot alternates between Dunne and Paul’s tentative relationship and the events surrounding the disaster thirty years earlier. The novel clocks the moments leading up to the tragedy, including details which became ominously significant when it came to the report, and the dreadful, bitter aftermath for the survivors:
Some in Bethnal Green were eager for the report, sure it would reveal something to help them make sense of the senseless. Others only felt suspicion. The inquiry, they believed, was merely a distraction, something authorities did in order to avoid accountability. How could someone not present that night tell them what happened?
This type of novel must be especially difficult to write. After all the reader knows the story (and its ending), but here the story isn’t the disaster itself–it’s the layers of details underneath: where was the policeman who was supposed to aid in crowd control? Was there a lightbulb throwing feeble light on the steps that led down to the station? Why were the crowds especially edgy that night? What was the truth of the ominous boom the crowds heard? And why was the Bethnal Green station the only station that lacked a centre handrail?
Following the tragedy a number of rumours surfaced:
Overnight, some authority had made a decision: the accident would be kept secret. The large number of dead was difficult to hide, however, so after a few hours the authorities announced that the shelter had, in fact, taken a small , direct hit. The population of Bethnal Green, puzzled by the total absence of any bomb damage, remain unconvinced. Then it began to rain, the perfect climate for rumour: it was Fascist incitement, a Jewish panic, an Irishman holding the gate against the crowd. There’d been a land mine, a new German weapon, a gas leak.
And then there’s Paul Barber–a young man who wants to tell the story of the disaster yet another way. He’s particularly interested in the way Dunne chose to write the report. Here’s Paul and Dunne:
“You faced an impossible task–to make sense of a pointless tragedy–and in three weeks you interviewed eighty witnesses and wrote a full report yourself. That would be inconceivable today. Today it would take two weeks merely to decide on the members of the investigating commission.” He stopped, but Dunne’s pleased expression encouraged him. “Then there’s the writing itself. It’s artful and compassionate–the opening, especially, of course.The story I want to tell is how and why you told the story of the tragedy the way you did.”
“Death demands ceremony. An inquiry is just a kind of ceremony.”
Paul shook his head. “The inquiry, yes. Call it ceremony. But not your report. It was something else.”
By the time the novel concludes, most readers will have gathered an opinion about the events of that night. As with any fiction novel based on true events, I found myself wondering just where fact and fiction merged. It’s impossible to read The Report, I think, without having sympathies for all those touched by the event. The plot’s central device (which I can’t mention as it’s a plot giveaway) was slightly forced into the novel’s structure, and it doesn’t mesh overall with the novel’s elegiac sensitivity. So while not an absolutely perfect novel, nonetheless, The Report is exquisitely constructed, and a rather beautiful novel that negotiates the disturbing tragedy with delicate yet compassionate artistry.
Review copy courtesy of Graywolf Press