This reading group guide for Light Perpetual includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
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Journey through the changing of a big city through 1944 to 2009 from the viewpoints of five young people: Jo, Val, Vern, Alec, and Ben as they live through the extraordinary, unimaginable changes of the bustling immensity of twentieth-century London. Their intimate everyday dramas, as sons and daughters, spouses, parents, grandparents; as the separated, the remarried, the bereaved. Through decades of social, sexual, and technological transformation, as bus conductors and landlords, as swindlers and teachers, patients and inmates. Days of personal triumphs, disasters; of second chances and redemption. Light Perpetual
is a stunning novel about what makes people who they are, from the author of Golden Hill
.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The opening chapter sets a sort of anti-scene for the rest of the book. Why do you think Spufford chose to begin the book the way he did?
2. There are many words specific to England (and even more specifically, twentieth-century London) in Light Perpetual
(“dollybirds,” “skinheads,” “blancmange,” Nancy-boys,” money in “half-crowns and ten-bob notes”). As a group, keep track of these words as you come across them, and keep a running list of terms and definitions.
3. On page 37, when Alec is interviewing for a job (one he’s dreamed of getting), Hobson tries to talk him out of getting a union gig: “you’ve got a future ahead of you in the print, and that’s grand. That will see you and Sandra right. And I done my best to help. But you’re a bright boy. And I just wanted to say, so I had at least come out and said it, at least once—is this what you really want?” Compare Alec in pages 29–40 with Alec in pages 275–95. How has the way he thinks about work and family changed, or has it stayed the same?
4. Jo is one of the stronger female characters in Light Perpetual
. In the first standalone chapter about her, she’s observing young men around her discuss their tastes in music. She muses, “In her experience nothing good at all comes from making the faintest criticism of men’s expertise in what men think of as men’s stuff” (page 77). What does that tell you about her understanding of the gender roles she’s been born into?
5. Starting on page 129, we rejoin Jo, who is now working in LA. How does her relationship with Ricky call back to her interaction with the boys on page 77, and what do you think she’s learned since then?
6. In Light Perpetual
, there is a lot of subtle commentary on the roles that were assigned to men and women in twentieth-century London. The stories of Val and Jo speak to this especially. When we first meet Val (page 40), she’s on a date with Alan, and then meets Mike. What does her first interaction with Mike tell you about what their relationship might become?
7. Mike is part of the skinhead youth culture of white working-class London in the 1970s, a violent and racist reaction against the changing ethnic makeup of the city. In fact, he has gone all the way into neo-Nazism. Val never directly challenges Mike’s harmful views, but she does ponder that “He is the only beautiful thing in her life, as well as being the cause of all the ugly ones” (page 163). After finishing Val’s story, what do you think of this statement about Mike? What does their marriage become for her?
8. When we meet Ben early in his life, he’s on Largactil (an antipsychotic) and in an old-fashioned insane asylum. Later, he works for the city bus system and has an addiction to marijuana. The author does not detail the name of his mental state, but what do you suppose he is dealing with, and how do you see him growing in self-sufficiency?
9. Later on, Ben has met Marsha and appears to be in a very happy marriage with a woman who has a different cultural and religious background than him. What do you make of his conversion experience to her lifestyle and religion?
10. Val and Jo are the main women in Light Perpetual
, and their lives couldn’t have ended up differently. What are the differences in their motivations in life, and how did those drive them in such different directions?
11. On pages 242–57, we get a glimpse of what Alec’s later years have become—a stay-at-home grandad who considers himself “domesticated” while his wife Sandra goes out and works. What is Alec’s perception of himself? What makes him happy about where he is, and what is pulling him away?
12. Once you’ve finished the book, compare and contrast the lives and careers of Vern and Alec. How are their motivations different? Where has that landed each of them?
13. The book ends with Ben. What do you make of the almost hymn-like last passage, as Ben slowly dies? Why do you think Spufford chose to finish the novel with Ben’s story?Enhance Your Book Club
1. There are five different protagonists in Light Perpetual
: Jo, Val, Vern, Alec, and Ben. As you read the book and are introduced to each character, write a brief character sketch about each of them (any defining physical features, clues about their livelihoods, and implications of their romantic relationships).
2. On page 262, when Vern is listening to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in the car with his daughter Becky, he observes that the singer is “a woman with some heft on her, too, a woman with an actual figure.” As a group, look up photos of women and men in London from the early 1940s to 2009. How do beauty and body standards change over time?
3. Once you’ve finished Light Perpetual
, watch the film Billy Elliot
. The plot involves a young boy coming of age in England and watching his family’s involvement in the 1984–85 miners’ strike. Discuss how the working class pictured in Billy Elliot
is similar to and different from the working class in Light Perpetual
(particularly the story of Alec and his son Gary).
4. Throughout the book, the music the characters make and listen to provides a soundtrack. You can find most of the songs on YouTube or search on Spotify for the Light Perpetual
playlist. Listen to these songs and discuss what the music tells you about how London has altered since 1944.