The Report by Jessica Francis Kane

For someone used to reading largely cosy accounts of life in wartime England, such as Henrietta’s War and The Provincial Lady in Wartime, The Report came as rather a nasty shock. It is based on the true event of the deaths of nearly 180 men, women and children in a crush at Bethnal Green tube station as they attempted to get in to shelter from an air raid in 1943. Francis Kane interweaves the stories of the victims, the survivors, the magistrate who was tasked with conducting the official inquiry into the accident, and a young documentary filmmaker thirty years after the event. She creates an absolutely gripping, heartrending and fascinating exploration of the corrosive effects of grief, fear and blame on a community previously united in its determination to keep the home fires burning without batting an eyelid.

I think the fact that this event has never been widely publicised says a lot about the truly devastating impact it had on the morale of Londoners. I’d never heard of this incident and had to double check that it really happened; we certainly weren’t taught about it at school, and I’ve never read about it in any historical account of the war in London. It’s the same with the flooding of Balham tube station that killed many people taking shelter during an air raid; I only found out about that through reading Atonement. If people died on the home front, they were supposed to die due to enemy action, not preventable accidents. The embarrassment of multiple deaths occurring due to faulty or inadequate shelters was clearly damaging for the government, and severely angered Londoners who relied on the shelters for their safety. Watching neighbours blown to smithereens by German bombs was bad enough, but at least they could blame the enemy; when 80 or so local children were crushed to death on a tube station platform when no bombs even fell in the vicinity, who can you blame for such needless deaths? Where does a community direct its grief? At the government? At each other? This is exactly what The Report explores, and I really couldn’t put it down.

The chapters alternate between 1943 and 1973, describing the immediate circumstances and aftermath of the event, and then moving on to explore the relationship between the now elderly magistrate who wrote the official report into the accident and the young documentary filmmaker who is attempting to answer the many ambiguities that remain about the fateful night, thirty years after it occurred. In 1943, we are taken into the shelter by Ada Barber, a middle aged harassed housewife with two young daughters, Tilly and Emma. When the sirens go off, she is unprepared, and on the way to the shelter she finds herself swept up in the stampede of hurrying feet. The crowds appear more nervous than usual, but no one could have predicted what would happen just moments later. Ada and Tilly are the last ones through the crowd before the crush, but Emma gets left behind and is suffocated. Ada and Tilly’s grief is heartbreaking, but the distance and distrust between them afterwards begs the question of what exactly Ada’s involvement was, and what Tilly witnessed, but will not speak about.

Laurence Dunne, the young, eager magistrate who lives in Bethnal Green and who has been tasked with writing the report, wants to get to the bottom of why and how such a terrible accident could have happened. Several characters who were there on the night, such as the guilt ridden Warden, Mr Low, and the young Clerk who is charged with collecting the victim’s belongings, complicate matters by their distress. Was it Warden Low’s fault for replacing the light bulb with a higher wattage, causing nervous locals to smash it on their way in for fear of planes spotting the light? Was it the Clerk’s fault for not pursuing an application to improve the shelter months before? Was it one of the locals’ fault? Did someone push someone else down? Did someone merely trip? Who was the first to fall? Was it anything to do with the rising tension between Jewish refugees and the local community? Is there anyone who can truly be blamed? Pressured from all sides to come to a conclusion, and to prevent the same thing from happening again, Laurence must tread through a minefield of emotions and guilt to find a conclusion that satisfies, but he doesn’t count on how personal the accident will become to him, and how difficult it will be to apportion blame.

In 1973, Paul Barney turns up at the now elderly Laurence’s door, anxious to find out what didn’t make it into the report. Who was really to blame? What was the whole story? But Paul has his own secret, and when Laurence finds out what it is, will he be able to reveal what really happened on that night, and finally unburden himself of the secret that has haunted him ever since?

I don’t normally enjoy modern retellings of WWII stories, but I’m prepared to make an exception with The Report; it’s truly excellent. It’s full of suspense, genuine emotion, and perceptively drawn characters, and the atmosphere of wartime London is wonderfully realised. I had to wipe away several tears while reading it, and I found myself completely and utterly swept up in the story. I highly recommend it, and I’m excited to see what Jessica Francis Kane comes out with next!

61 comments

  1. What a great review. This sounds just my cup of tea which makes me sound positively ghoulish….which I don’t mean to…just I love social documentary type stuff. Thanks so much for letting us know about it. I shall order it from our library directly.

    1. Thanks Alex – doesn’t make you sound ghoulish at all – I find such things absolutely fascinating too! I hope the library gets it to you quickly!

  2. This sounds very interesting. I have read so much from the point of view of the American soldiers and the holocaust victims but not much about wartime England. Many of the old movies show an attractive couple clinging to each other in a doorway or stairwell as bombs are falling. The woman usually has an attractive smudge on her cheek. They are not very realistic but the reality would be very intense. Your review intrigues me,but I will have to be in the right mood to read it.

    1. That’s interesting, Janet – I don’t know much about the American experience so we could probably educate one another very well! Yes – a lot of depictions of wartime London are rather unrealistic and I like books like this that portray a different side of life and show just how terrifying it was. I hope you manage to read The Report at some point, but yes, make sure you’re in the right mood as it is an emotional read.

  3. I, too, was very impressed by this novel. It puts the reader into this horrible event as it unfolds and the characters are thoroughly realized. It is a highly complex book, brilliantly executed by Kane. Your review is spot on, Rachel.

    1. Thank you for giving it to me, Ellen! I doubt I would have picked it up otherwise. It is a brilliantly written book and I must say I was pleasantly surprised by it! I should have known not to be though – your taste is impeccable!🙂

  4. I was nourished – or should I say force-fed – on my mother’s accounts of the war. My parents were bombed out three times from their London homes and she could never stop telling us about the trials of being evacuated, about rationing and queuing for a couple of oranges. I think it contributed to her mental deterioration. I remember, though, being fascinated by hearing about the setting up of the National Health Service and other more positive events during and after the war.

    This is a MUST read for me. You have written a very impressive review. Thank you.

    1. Oh Chrissy, how awful for your parents and I’m not surprised that it went on to define the rest of their lives. What stories you must have heard! Perhaps a book of memoirs would be in order at some point?

      Hope you manage to track a copy down and enjoy it as much as I did – if you can’t let me know and I’ll send you mine once I get it back from a friend!

      1. That is so kind, Rachel (as always!) I’ve just ordered a copy from good ole Amazon.
        If you are still in the mood for realistic WW2 books, I highly recommend Philip Larkin’s beautiful novel A Girl in Winter. I bet you’ve already read it though.

  5. I’m obsessed with WWII at the moment and reading everything I can lay my hands on, though mostly stuff that was written at the time. But this sounds fascinating and I will definitely look out for it. Thanks.

    1. I love going through reading phases like that – it’s so much fun to really delve into a period. I normally stick to contemporary accounts too but this was really well done and I think you’d enjoy it – it certainly adds an interesting slant to the usual stories told about the war.

  6. Thanks for reviewing this one. I was looking at it at Waterstones yesterday but decided not to get it. No I’ve changed my mind – I need to read this one.

    1. Glad I’ve changed your mind, Willa! Definitely one to pick up and read and a good one for summer too as you’ll get through it very quickly!

      1. For those who lived through the five years of death and destruction by the German attacks on London, these memories are painful. The Report, Jessica Kane’s book, is a valuable contribution to the memory of those who’s spirit didn’t break, despite the efforts of the Luftwaffe. The main reason that Hitler targeted the east end of London with the terror raids was to create panic in those crowded streets and force the British government to sue for peace. Although the mass panic that the Nazis expected didn’t happen, nerves were often stretched to breaking point and mental health deteriorated. Picture large areas without a house standing and with only the roads and sidewalks to show where there were once thriving streets with shops, schools, and churches. Imagine queuing for hours for the chance of obtaining scarce food commodities and then walking
        home fearful that it would be another night of bombing.

        I’m disappointed by the often flippant responses to the book, to see it as a fun summer read, as an insult to the memory of the victims of these tragic times.

  7. I’m like Harriet, completely obsessed with WWII lately. I just got this out from the library and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’ve mostly been reading books written during the period (i.e., Persphones) but I’m glad to know this is such a great book.

    1. Oh JoAnn, I’m jealous – this would be FANTASTIC to discuss at a book group! Let me know if they choose it as I’d love to hear what they all thought!

  8. What a coincidence – I read this yesterday, on JoAnn’s recommendation! BTW, thought you were just reading American books this year? Did you end up desperate for some English lit?!

    1. What a coincidence! Hope you enjoyed it as much as me! I know, I was supposed to, but all these great books kept arriving from well meaning friends so I couldn’t resist dipping back into English literature! I do miss books set in England with English speech so I have allowed myself the odd one or two now and again!

  9. The horrors of war are not always done by opposing armies and are not always clear cut, are they? My mother worked in a factory that made airplane parts during WWII. A plane crashed, due to one of the parts the factory was making, not enemy fire, killing all onboard. I remember her talking about it and how the entire plant was called out for it. Not really what this book is about, I know, but brings out the term often used of collateral damage. I dislike that phrase, but, can’t think of another right now.

    A wonderful, wonderful review Rachel, that will compel me to get The Report and likely recommend it to our book group as JoAnn mentions above. Well done!

    1. Absolutely not, Penny. What a fascinating story – how awful the plant workers must have felt. We all of us are fallable and mistakes happen and it’s an awful thing to think that you could have been responsible for something that caused so much pain.

      Thank you – I hope you will enjoy it as much as me and I hope your book group chooses it and enjoys it too!

  10. Like Chrissy, my parents are children of the blitz–both of my parents were evacuated from London at the beginning of the war and spent most of the war in the countryside. However, other aunts and uncles returned to London at various points during the war, plus one grandmother’s house was bombed (it was on Abbey Road–but not the one made famous by the Beatles), so my siblings and I grew up with interesting stories of the war. I used to love to hear my mum’s stories of the war (my dad rarely spoke of his experiences) and post-war “austerity” Britain–although I grew up on a post-WWII-pre-fab housing estate off Beckton Road, so I had a pretty austere upbringing myself–ha-ha!

    1. War stories are so fascinating, aren’t they? It sounds like your family had quite the time of it. My grandmother was evacuated from Marylebone and my grandfather from East London somewhere – they ended up in the then countryside of Kent that became the South East London suburbs and never ended up leaving, which is why I grew up there!

    2. Beckton Road, I recall, was the site of an army transit camp that had housed hundreds of troops waiting to embark on D-Day. Fortunately, most of the troops had left when a flying bomb hit the cookhouse. Nevertheless, many soldiers were killed or injured. Like the Bethnal Green tragedy, time erases such powerful memories.

      1. I think the housing estate I grew up on (it was between Beckton Road and the East Ham by-pass) may have been built on or behind the old barracks. We had huge “fields” around us that were never used (except as an illegal dumping site). My grandfather and father both worked at different times at the Beckton Gas Works. Having escaped the blitz, it was finally blown-up by Stanley Kubrick, who used it as a replacement for Vietnam (?!) in “Full Metal Jacket.”

  11. I loved this book too. It’s a shame so few people are aware of such an important and tragic moment in history. I think it’s great that Jessica Francis Kane has written a book about it and helped bring it to our attention.

    1. I know, it is a real shame – I feel like more should have been done to commemorate this and honour the victims’ memories. They were victims of war too.

  12. I first read about this book on Jackie’s blog and thought it sounded fascinating. It does make you think twice about going underground especially when it was supposed to be the safest place to be during raids.

  13. You make an excellent point that there is a certain body of ‘cosy’ reading about the two world wars which can blind us to the terrible realities. I’ve never heard of this book or the event it covers, sounds fascinating.

    1. Thanks Nicola – I know I am certainly guilty of just wanting to read the nice bits and I have allowed myself to enjoy the cosy Persephone style novels rather than face the realities that many people struggled with. I think you’d really enjoy this, it’s incredibly well written.

  14. I bought this right after Christmas, but the depressing nature of the story has made me put off reading it. I should really pull it off the shelf, too. These things had to have happened, so I’m surprised they weren’t really talked about, though understandable during the war–I thought the scene in Atonement was disturbing as well. Not sure if you’ve read her or not but you might also like Nightwatch if you’re willing to make another exception.

    1. I strongly second the recommendation of Sarah Walters’s NIGHTWATCH for yet another view of WWII in London and how arbitrary the bombings were (in one scene, the decision to go–or not go–upstairs to retrieve a small domestic item makes the difference between living and dying). What’s interesting about the book is that it’s told backwards–which seemed like a gimmick at first, but actually worked very well, especially since Walters (to me) is an author who writes a crackerjack of a book for three-quarters of the way and then sort of loses her footing for the last part (for example, in THE LITTLE STRANGER). In NIGHTWATCH, the last part came first and so there was no sudden drop-off in the story.

      1. Thanks Deb, I will take that recommendation on board and look out for it when I get back to England! I enjoyed Fingersmith but haven’t read anything else by her so it’s probably about time!

    2. I know, it’s not exactly an uplifting read, but it’s over so quickly and so thought provoking that you can cope with how sad it is. I think you’d really enjoy it. Oh yes, that scene in Atonement was terrible – poor Cecilia.

      I am a bit sniffy about Sarah Waters for no good reason – I shall try and get hold of The Night Watch as reading The Report has definitely made me more open to reading modern retellings of WWII events.

  15. We visited The Book Vault in Stratford yesterday, they carry loads of books from England not found in our chain bookshops. I asked at the counter about The Report but they didn’t have a copy in, so frustrating! Thank goodness for The Book Depository.

    I can’t quite remember if it was The Woman’s Hour or a books podcast but I listened to Kane being interviewed about this book last winter, she was riveting! Fascinating how a nugget of information turned into an obsession to reveal the entire tragedy. And isn’t it a bit scary how events can be buried in the news or history books?

    1. Oh that is frustrating! Glad you can still order from other sources though!

      Really? I shall have to try and find that interview online as I’d love to hear her talk about it! I know – she is so clever to have thought up this whole story around it. And yes – it has made me wonder what else the government covered up in the interests of public morale…very interesting and also slightly disturbing!

  16. I think it was the Bethnal Green tube station tragedy that was alluded to at the end of the film Atonement.

    1. It was actually Balham tube station at the end of Atonement, Margaret – a bomb hit the station and burst the water pipes, flooding it and drowning people inside. Absolutely awful and definitely a worse death I think.

  17. This is a very well written book and one I think everyone should be aware of especially as the tragedy has seemed to stay under the carpet, known only to a few.

    I thought it was excellent and learnt a lot from the book. It was also good to read a WW2 story from a different angle, perspective all of which broaden my knowledge on the subject. I had rather a month of June reading different aspects of WW2 novels.

  18. I too thought this book an excellent read. It’s funny how you mentioned about the flooding of the tube station included in Atonement – I had flashbacks to the scene from the movie and book as I read The Report – a factoid I knew nothing about as well.

  19. Thanks for this review – this sounds like my cup of tea and I will most definitely make a purchase now. Like a few others, I’ve picked this up and though – ooo miserable, no thanks – but it sounds well put together and fascinating.

  20. Memories of the major Blitz – London 1940-41 – was still fresh in the minds of us East Enders, and fears were renewed with the return of the Luftwaffe. That night, expectations were high for a tit-for-tat raid because the RAF had previously bombed Berlin. As horrible as this incident was, it was one of many that Londoners had to endure during the course of the war. More horrors were to follow with the 1944 Mini Blitz, the V1 flying bombs, and finally the V2 rockets. As a child, it was an education I would have preferred to miss, but the memories remain deeply embedded.

    Derek

  21. I am going to be the party pooper on this one I can see. Well, not party pooper but as I rather stupidly (and completely my own fault) built this book up rather a lot in my head it sort of didnt have the impact I was expecting it too. Some of it I found really distant, I couldn’t connect and I am not sure why. Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was very good, I just wanted the emotional connection you had with it and something kept me a little at bay.

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