2011 Historical Fiction Recommended books

The Report – Jessica Francis Kane

Five words from the blurb: crowd, crushed, testimony, guilt, community

Shortly after writing my predictions for the Orange Prize I received an email from the publisher of The Report. She had high hopes it would make the Orange long list and having read the book I can see why – if I was on the judging panel I would have put it straight on the list. 

The Report is a fictional story based around the Bethnal Green Tube disaster – a tragedy in which 173 people were crushed to death trying to get inside the station during an air raid. It was the worst civilian disaster in Britain during WWII and I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t even heard about it before.

The book personalises the terrible event by focusing on the experience of a mother and her two daughters, as well as those in charge of overseeing proceedings at the station. I immediately connected with the characters and felt their emotions very clearly.

Bertram stretched up as tall as he could, trying to see what was keeping the crowd back. All he could see was a jostling mass darker than the night. He smelled sweat on his shirt, and the breath and sweat of the people all around. His stomach heaved, his mouth convulsed as if it were not his own. He knew this street; it had always seemed so spacious. He remembered a bus accident that had once blocked the junction for hours, but that was a crowd paralysed by tragedy. This was a crowd in motion, a crowd with a destination, unprepared to change its course. Bertram felt elbows and shoulders; tears and sweat covered his cheeks, but he couldn’t raise his hands to wipe them – his arms were pinned.

The book also covers time after the incident  – showing the way in which authorities tried to cover up the tragedy and details of the subsequent enquiry. I found the testimonies gathered for this enquiry particularly interesting, as everyone responsible for making a tiny mistake that night felt an incredible weight of guilt. It showed our society’s terrible habit of needing to attribute blame when something like this happens, but also the futility of it all. I found this insight into our culture of blame thought-provoking and it has altered my perception of accidents like this – we should all just feel sadness; pointing the finger at someone does nothing to help.  

The Report is very well researched and totally gripping. If you like thought-provoking books with an emotional punch then I guarantee you will not be disappointed by it. Highly recommended. 


The thoughts of other bloggers:

….somehow manages to play for its’ readers the full symphony of motivations, emotions, personalities and perspectives… Book Sexy Review

….a moving novel about a horrible event, and without any flowery description, Kane is able to generate much emotion. Diary of an Eccentric

….a surprisingly compelling novel about a seemingly unlikely subject. Devourer of Books

37 replies on “The Report – Jessica Francis Kane”

Hadn’t come across this either, it sounds like an interesting take on WW2 fiction. Will follow up your recommendation.

I also didn’t know about the Bethnal Green Tube disaster, and I really like Blitz-related stories. At first I thought you meant the tube station that was flooded (the one described in Atonement).

Is it a terribly sad book?

Alex, I thought it was a tube crash when I first heard about it and I really didn’t want to read about that as I’m scared enough of tube trains as it is. 🙁

Parts of this book are sad, but I didn’t find it a depressing read. The saddest parts are in the beginning so it had moved away from that by the end.

I’ve sort of seen this around on the web and although the reviews have been sparkling, I had an image that it would be quite dry. Seems I was wrong:) I’ll be keeping my eye out for this.

Sakura, No. It isn’t at all dry. There are a few moments when it feels as though it is repeating itself, but this was when they were getting testimonies from different people and I thought it was interesting to see how everyone had a slightly different perspective on what had happened. I hope that you find a copy and enjoy reading it.

Annabel, Great news! I look forward to comparing notes with you. This is one of those books that I didn’t mean to read straight away, but read the first few sentences to get a feel for the book and then couldn’t put it down. I hope you experience the same enthusiasm for this one.

This sounds a fascinating book. One to get a copy of I think. I’m always disturbed by the idea of disasters in Tube stations (probably because I take it every day). I always feel sad when I see the plaque for the Kings Cross fire.

Novel Insights, I am disturbed by tube disasters too. The great? thing about this book is that it isn’t really about a tube station – this sort of thing could happen anywhere. A reason to avoid crowds, but not tube stations 😉

One for the New Writers Award maybe? I reacall Evie Wyld appearing there last year after much shock that she wasn’t longlisted and The Boy Next Door, the eventual winner, is my favourite of last years Orange Books that I’ve read so far.

Oh, this sounds wonderful! I haven’t heard of this event either, but I requested it from the library. I’m hoping to be able to alternate Orange longlist books with other reads if I can get back into my reading groove:-)

Carrie, Yes. I’m trying to spread out the Oranges too (or at least my reviews of them). Such a shame that this isn’t among them. I think I’m going to have to create my ideal Orange list nearer the time. I hope that you enjoy this one as much as I did.

Jackie, I’m so happy you liked this one. I read it a while back when I did some books from indie presses, and I remember how bad I felt for everyone involved in the incident. You’re right…blame-throwing doesn’t do anyone any good — and I think that shined through loud and clear in this book. Thanks for your take on the novel.

Nancy, Before reading the book I sort of assumed it was always good to know exactly why accidents like this happened, but this book explained how there can be multiple causes and it made me realise that it isn’t always a good idea to go digging – you can cause more harm than good. 🙁 Such a good book – I’m pleased that you enjoyed it too.

I’ve never heard of this disaster before. I do like books that pack an emotional punch so this one is for me.

Sounds like they managed to cover this up quite well. And it does seem like most accidents of this type are the result of a bunch of “little” mistakes that snowball into something huge and unstoppable. Glad this story is seeing the light of day.

Jenners, Yes. Amazingly well covered up 🙁 It is nice that this situation is finally getting some publicity and I hope it leads to the construction of the memorial that the families of the victims would like.

I really enjoyed this one and thought it was very well done. I loved how the author took a little known historical incident and examined it from so many sides.

My husband found this book for me a few months ago in the “new” section in the library. I probably would never have read it otherwise. He said that it looks like a WWII book and I should read it. He didn’t even read the summary, just handed it to me, and I just took it. I’m so glad I did because it was an amazing book. Very powerful. Glad you liked it as well. I’ll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

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