Kane’s novel is based on a real incident in WWII, in which 173 civilians lost their lives seeking shelter in an underground public transit station during an air raid warning. The incident marked the biggest loss of life for England during the war. The terrible loss of life, including many women and children, led to an investigation. Thirty years later, one of the child survivors is making a documentary on the incident, including the investigation itself. In short chapters, Kane moves between 1943 and 1972-3 in a concise, clear narrative that moves swiftly along.
History records this as the Bethnal Green disaster, for the London neighborhood where it occurred. The novel involves a number of characters, but the main players are the: Ada Barber and her daughters Tilly (8) and Emma (4), in 1943; and the investigating Magistrate Laurence (Laurie) Dunn. When the siren sounds Ada gathers her children and heads to the station. They are caught in a crush going down the stairs from the entrance. At one point Emma is separated as Ada and Tilly just make it onto the landing. The loss of Emma has a devastating effect on the survivors.
Besides the emotional based themes of guilt and grief, there are the also the more broad undercurrents of anti-semitism, political manipulation, the public vs private need to know, and assessing blame. There were many small factors that led to the disaster. They all added up, but no one factor “caused” the disaster. Juggling the publics desire to assess blame with the objective to find the real truth, the Magistrate treaded a fine line. But when his superiors refused to release the report (it was eventually released sometime later) Dunn had some decisions to make.
We get a good feel for what happened in the 1943 scenes (or we think we do), but in talks with the documentary filmmaker (the later scenes) there are a few surprises left to be uncovered, including the identity of Paul Barber, and what’s really behind the guilt of Ada. More interesting because I’d never heard of this WWII tragedy, Kane’s retelling is a serviceable account and raises the appropriate themes.