Kane reimagines a real-life civilian tragedy during World War II, when 173 people, fleeing an apparent air raid, were crushed to death in a stairwell in a newly built Tube station in London.
The Bethnal Green tragedy of March 3, 1943, is all the more terrible and poignant because no bombs fell over London that evening. And bizarrely, every death was by asphyxiation; only one victim—a survivor—suffered a broken bone. Kane, author of the story collection Bending Heaven (2002), moves deftly among perspectives on the catastrophe: We eavesdrop on war-battered townsfolk, the tardy policeman, the overburdened priest, the devastated shelter-chief who feels responsible. Kane's command of period detail is marvelous. She focuses on magistrate Laurence Dunne, appointed to conduct an investigation and produce a report that will be both thorough and innocuous, that will explore and explain the tragedy while also assuaging fears and aiding "morale…the altar on which reason was daily sacrificed." Finding someone to blame—whether it's Jewish refugees, a war-weary mother chasing two young daughters, neighborhood boys with firecrackers, the government or malfeasant officials—is a psychological necessity, and everyone is looking for someone on whom to pin responsibility. Kane adroitly weaves together various theories and gives a sense of the grim succor that assigning blame can provide grief-stricken citizens. Unfortunately, the book is hampered by a contrived framework—30 years later, an orphan of the Bethnal Green tragedy interviews Dunne for a documentary—that undermines the eloquent take on moral intricacy and ambiguity.
Some plot problems aside, a deft, vivid first novel.