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!