Cometh the hour, cometh the book
How often does a book change you? Stuart Evers’s new book ‘The Blind Light’ has me rethinking my whole adult life, from Cuban missile crisis to the brink of Covid-19. That’s the timescale of the book, which explores the unlikely friendship of two very different men and their families as they struggle through the turbulent world events of recent history.
One is an unassuming factory hand, the other an arrogant posh boy sent down from Oxford. They meet on National Service in Doom Town, a simulated disaster area to train soldiers to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear attack. This initiation is what imprints them, more than most, with deep feelings of horror and foreboding and sets them on a desperate search for safety and peace.
Carter is educated academically, a braggart who needs an audience. Drummond is self educated, streetwise, intuitive, an observer. Early banter between them sets the scene: ‘When the revolution comes, you’ll be the first against the wall’…’We own the walls’…
This is a long book, but not a word is wasted. Evers sweeps us along on a gripping story full of twists (one of them had me do a double take and feel like I’d been punched in the gut) and a wide range of writing styles from bleak descriptions of destruction to lush evocations of Carter’s ‘curated’ family pile; lyrical musings on parenthood: ‘One day she’ll talk in whole sentences, one day she’ll answer me back…’ to a frenetic sketch of a rave and moving soliloquys near the end of the book.
The default style is pared-down realism, often honed to an expressive shorthand, utterly convincing. Evers has an uncanny ear for dialogue, especially inner dialogue: ‘That face. Worth it to see that face’, which brings the characters into intimate close up.
Fascinating, authentic characters. There’s Gwen, Drum’s wife, feisty yet loyal and thoughtful, Nick, an eccentric writer who becomes her friend and mentor, Anneka the rebellious daughter, Nate the troubled but caring son… We see their relationships grow and develop, through, for example, a particularly fine account of a long and mature marriage which still has mystery and tenderness. Here’s Drum musing on his wife of many years: ‘He watched her fiddling with the sash of her robe, the constellations of her mind, unknowable, unseen, yet sometimes illuminated.’
This epic novel explores themes of trust and betrayal, dreams and disillusionment, the divisions of British class system and the struggle to maintain a normal life in the face of disruption and disaster. It asks questions like: how far do you trust a friend? (all the way if you have no alternative)…What creates deep family bonds and what tears them apart and how do you carry on in the fallout? And most tellingly, how much do you trust the government? Wholeheartedly, if the truth is deliberately hidden from you and the lies protected by the Official Secrets Act…
Sounds familiar? In the same month this book was launched, this quote* from the Guardian: ‘The realities are terrifying, and the terror goes deep, exposing our vulnerability not just to the disease but to the heartlessness of the powerful’.
Incredible that a book about global threats and bunkers arrives as we emerge from our (first?) Covid lockdown…
Despite all the fear and grief, this is a hopeful book. It’s one of the great achievements of the book that Evers manages to convey the solid sacredness of the ordinary and how it saves us from being deluded by glamour, especially the glamour of disaster, constantly promoted by the media.The Blind Light is a book for our times, but one which will be read and re-read for generations to come.
*’The politics of loneliness’ by Barbara Taylor, The Guardian 27.6.20