The Report is slender novel about a catastrophic accident that took place in London during World War II. On March 3, 1943, one hundred seventy-three civilians were killed in a crush of people as they tried to enter a bomb shelter. Jessica Francis Kane's novel is, as she describes it, a historical imagining of the tragedy. The novel is centered around a local magistrate's investigation of and report about the incident.
Sometimes I finish the last page of a book and turn immediately to the first page to read it again. I can think of probably five novels that have had this effect on me, and The Report is one of those five. I don't know how Kane managed to do it in just 238 pages, but in those pages she transports the reader to the war-weary neighborhood of Bethnel Green and, in a series of short chapters, reveals different characters' perceptions of this tragic accident and the upheaval that follows.
In subtle and brief passages, Kane develops the key characters, from a grieving mother who lost a child to the shelter warden who blames himself for the crush to the magistrate's search for understanding. Kane does not offer back story for these characters, but through delicate and subtle placement of details--how a mother touches her child, a stray comment from one character to another, the smallest of interactions--a deeper picture of each of them is developed in the mind of the reader.
Kane does the same magic with building a sense of Bethnel Green as a complex community made even more so by the daily travails of the war. There are no long, descriptive paragraphs detailing a London neighborhood shredded by German bombs. Instead, by dropping hints, references, and quick snapshots of the Bethnel Green cityscape, Kane shows readers the physical manifestation of living in a war zone: anti-refugee graffiti, wildflowers growing over bombsites, damaged birds, buildings in disrepair, patched clothing, slumped shoulders.
We enter The Report already knowing what has happened. At the beginning of the novel, we know that no bombs fell on London that night, but still 173 people entering a familiar bomb shelter, as they had for years, were killed in a sudden backup of people. Although we know this right from the start, a subtle suspense continues to build throughout the novel as magistrate Laurence Dunne interviews witnesses in his attempt to understand why the accident happend. Who or what can be blamed? Can someone be prosecuted? Could it have been prevented? Is there a cover up? How can a community that has suffered such loss go on?
This novel is so gripping that it's difficult to avoid reading too quickly. That is why I wanted to read it again and why I'm glad I did. That is also why I find it rather difficult to write this review. There's so much here to mull over. This is the story of one incident that took place in a war that recedes more and more from our present-day understanding, but at the same time, it could also be the story of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina or of any community that is forced to face a sudden and unimaginable tragedy. It is the story of how people figure out how to grieve, how to take responsibility, and how to try to move forward.