A decade ago — eheu fugaces labuntur anni — Stuart Evers’s debut story collection, Ten Stories About Smoking, was one of the first books I ever reviewed, and I’ve kept tabs on his career ever since, in that spirit of comradely competitiveness one feels for a writer of a similar age launching at the same time. I spoke warmly of his first novel If This Is Home and enjoyed his second collection, Your Father Sends His Love, when it appeared in 2015.
But there was nothing in those earlier works to prepare me for the scale and ambition of The Blind Light. This extraordinary novel about Britain and Britishness spans six decades and uses the stories of two men and their families to delve revealingly into complex questions of class, fate and history.
The book begins in 2019’s unsettling territory, as we meet Nate and Anneka, a brother and sister reunited after a long separation. Nate perches on a grain silo (an object that eerily foreshadows much of the material ahead) and thinks back to when he and Anneka would spy on their neighbours — the family whose story was so intimately bound up with their own. As brother and sister negotiate the awkwardness of their reunion, it’s clear that some terrible event has altered both their lives and those of the neighbours.
We then move back to 1959, where we meet Drummond — Drum — Moore and Jim Carter, both doing National Service at Doom Town, a fictional site in Cumbria that is a mock-up of a post-apocalyptic village, complete with ‘authentic touches. A shoe burnt into a floorboard. A dead body dummy behind the wheel of a Ford Anglia. The melted keys of a Remington typewriter.’ Drum is from Essex, working-class, on secondment from the production line at Ford’s in Dagenham, where he ‘riveted doors in silent shifts’. Carter is from a different world. Sent down from Oxford and now forced by his stern father to submit to National Service, he is suave, wolfish and full of expansive stories.
The Blind Light follows both men through the threat of nuclear strike, the image of the mushroom cloud forever present. They both marry and have children, but there remains a deep bond between them. When the Cuban missile crisis makes life in the London suburbs untenable for Drum, his wife Gwen and daughter Anneka, they leap at the chance to move north to run the dairy farm next to the lavish country pad where Carter lives. But the house has its own dark history, and what begins as an idyll soon turns into something fraught and perilous. As the generations of Moores and Carters live out their lives against the backdrop of perestroika and the miners’ strikes, New Labour and the rave culture, we see the futility of any attempt to separate the personal from the political — we are all living in history, all of the time.
I’ve sometimes felt that Evers was an American author trapped in the body of a man from Cheshire, and this book has the scope of a Great American Novel, as encompassing and ecumenical as anything by Bellow or Franzen. But the real touchstone is Don DeLillo, and The Blind Light sent me straight back to White Noise, with which it is in direct and powerful dialogue. That Evers’s novel does not suffer by comparison is high praise indeed.