Category Archives: Kane Jessica Francis

This Close by Jessica Frances Kane

A few years ago, I read the excellent novel The Report by Jessica Frances Kane. This was an unusual book which concerned the 1943 Bethnal Green Disaster, a horrific true incident. Given the subject matter, The Report could potentially have been a very dry read, but the story was written with impressive sensitivity which effectively conveyed the lasting impact of the tragic event for those involved.

This CloseNow author Jessica Frances Kane follows up that first novel with a collection of 12 short stories: This Close–a collection that focuses on the complexities of relationships. In the first story Lucky Boy, and my favorite in the collection, the author delicately explores the silent, impenetrable divisions of class. The protagonist, a young man named Henry patronises a dry cleaners operated by two young Korean women. Over time an uneasy ‘big-brother’ relationship develops between Henry and Owen, the young son of one of the owners. It’s an awkward relationship, and one that Henry is never comfortable with, but then again, he’s not comfortable with using a dry cleaning service in the first place or with “members of the service industry” in general. Henry understands, unlike his much more affluent friend Christina, that most people who “serve” others aren’t thrilled about it, and bear no deep-abiding love for those in a higher station in life who can afford to make life a little easier for themselves. 

I’d observed Christina’s family and friends and the way they sometimes talked about their relationships with members of the service industry. I thought it was a way of seeming to have servants without admitting you wanted them. Mr. Greene, for example, an expensive florist Christina’s parents had been using for years, was said to have been waiting to do Christina’s wedding since she was a baby. ‘He just loves her,” her mother would croon.

It’s the Gone-with-the-Wind fantasy–our slaves/servants love us so much, they would be happy to be slaves for us even if they weren’t paid!  As Henry becomes more involved with Owen, he simultaneously becomes more involved with Christina. We know these parallel paths can’t continue–something has to give. There’s a moment when Henry’s life could go in an entirely different direction, but then again there are plenty of indications that he’s not a decisive person and will bend with the stronger wind.

Some of the stories in the collection are connected, and this device somehow made the stories seem richer. Perhaps this is because the author picks up her characters at several points in their lives or views them from different angles. In American Lawn, Pat answers an ad for a plot of land placed by a man named Kirill. Kirill who has limited English, and who lives in an apartment, wants a piece of land that he can garden in exchange for vegetables. The plan goes well, until the boundaries of the relationship become blurred and complicated by the neighbor Janeen. Essentials of Acceleration brings more focus on to  Pat’s neighbor “go-getter” Janeen.

One family–John, Elizabeth and their daughter Hannah appears at different times in their lives in three connected stories: The Stand-In, The Old Beginning, and another favourite Local Birds. The problems within the family are re-visited with each subsequent story and the problems haven’t gone away but have morphed or mutated, so the mother, Elizabeth who is”disengaged with the world” in The Stand-In is still basically the same in Local Birds, a story that occurs much later in the characters’ lives, but the difference is that over the years, Hannah no longer tries to understand her mother’s peculiarities. In Local Birds, it’s John’s retirement party, thrown by Hannah for her father and some of his closest work associates. Elizabeth makes a brief appearance, but with her typical behaviour, she soon bows out:

Once upon a time Hannah would have searched for reasons, too, desperate to placate and include a mother who needed to remove herself. Now she is calm and helpful, a remarkable transformation. John wonders how she managed it. He thinks of all the times he might have intervened in the past, all the roads he might have gone down trying to negotiate between them during the difficult years. He believes not one of those roads would have led here, to this night, the three of them together. His mistake would have been to assume at any point that their problems were more than a stage. Everything is stages. He’s glad he stayed out of it.

Of course, John’s thoughts aren’t exactly accurate. Elizabeth’s withdrawal is not a “stage” as it’s a continued behaviour. Nothing is ‘solved’; it’s simply that now Hannah, for better or worse, now accepts her mother’s behavior without question. Is this a sign of maturity on Hannah’s part, an acceptance of the inevitable, or a sort of denial that there’s a problem?

Other connected stories are: Lesson,  First Sale, Double Take, Night Class–all glimpses at moments in the lives of a woman named Maryanne and her son, Mike. Lesson and Night Class both felt rather undeveloped and were snapshots rather than substantive stories, but apart from that This Close is an excellent, polished and perceptive collection. I’ve read a lot of short stories over the years, and while I’ve found many new authors this way, I’ll add that collections of interconnected stories by one author have a special allure, and reading this collection reminded me of Ellen Gilchrist’s Rhoda stories. Many of the stories in This Close explore the fuzzy space between the people we are and the people we’d like to be through the turning points in various relationships. While the recognition of the difference between who we are and who we’d like to be is a sign of maturity, the author, shows us that turning away from opportunities to become a better or different person can also be an acceptance of an easier choice of less self-examination, and in lives scarred by misunderstandings, miscommunications and mistakes, often the easier path is the road of less resistance and change.

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The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

“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

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