In Jessica Francis Kane's stunning novel, "The Report," she takes us down into the dank air of a shelter in war-weary London. There, one woman's act of impatience and annoyance causes an accident that takes the lives of 173 people and shakes the spirit of an East End community. Kane's characters come to realize tragedy is like that: It can be distilled into one small gesture. They also learn how hope and redemption are also seeded by singular acts and choices, and that therefore "tragedy does not remain the story."
The novel is based upon a few facts and a report written about the worst civilian disaster of World War II. Kane does not give space to tedious documentation or immobilizing regret, but deftly makes a painful story whole by setting forth pitch-perfect portraits and tight scenes of candor between memorable, interlinked characters.
At the heart of the story is magistrate Laurence Dunne, who authored the 1943 report and becomes a mentor of memory to retrospective filmmaker Paul Barber. From their respective and shared time frames, and the stories of others touched by the accident, Kane expertly displays how memory is the least reliable but most compelling filter for truth.
Paul's sister Tilly provides a critical link, and Kane invests her with a crystalline voice, as when she tells Dunne about describing the moon to her little sister who had never seen it during a life where all the windows of her nights were blacked-out.
Tilly and other survivors in the close-knit community make their way from the bomb-sheltered world, where there were "no weather reports, no lights at night, no flowers," toward lives that include, if not joy, at least forgiveness -- forgiveness of one's self and of others. They learn that it is better than assigning blame. Amends are made through small acts of comfort, as with a gift of a pair of green-soled shoes, or through grand acts of courage, as when Ada Barber adopts the orphaned Paul.
As Ada states, "you don't get to be happy again. You simply change, and then you decide if you can live with the change."
Ultimately, Kane shows us that, as the constant and devoted Reverend McNeely says, "People think they want the whole truth, but they're far happier with only as much as they can forgive." And often times, that is enough. Always, it is a start toward again embracing life and believing, "people weren't as bad as the worst thing they do."
Susan Thurston is a St. Paul poet and novelist. Her work is included in the new anthology, "Low Down and Coming On: A Feast of Delicious and Dangerous Poems About Pigs," published by Red Dragonfly Press.