Thought-provoking, sometimes difficult, always moving, Smash All The Windows by Jane Davis starts at a run as we are pitched straight into emotional turmoil, grief, anger and betrayal. There is an inquest investigating an accident thirteen years earlier, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice. In turn we meet the survivors, and the relatives of the victims. Davis follows the paths of each person to their own resolution; there is no self-help book to follow, they must each must work it out for themselves. We see flashbacks to the days and hours before the accident as Davis unravels the real truth of what happened.
This is a complex story with legal twists and turns, misunderstandings and minute step-by-step detail of what happened on that day, thirteen years ago, when over-crowding at St Botolph and Old Billingsgate tube stations in London ended in death. For thirteen years, blame has been thrown around, scapegoats have been targeted, the media has dug for dirt. This is an imaginary accident but with echoes of so many disasters – Hillsborough, Grenfell, Kings Cross – that it can’t help but be affecting.
There are a lot of victims and survivors, a lot of relatives. The high number of characters causes initial confusion: who is who, who is alive and who is dead, what was the actual accident. As I read the first quarter of the book, I longed for a short summary of what happened. But as the story progressed I understood that my confusion mirrors the confusion of an accident as it happens, the disorientation of victims, the powerlessness of the loved ones who are waiting. It is a purposeful obfuscation by the author to reflect the opacity of what happens, the difficulty of finding the truth in any inquest or public enquiry, and ultimately the slippery nature of memory.
The survivors and relatives of victims are now living fractured lives. Gina lost her son. Her daughter Tamsin has grown into a young woman, still living at home to support her mother after Gina’s husband left, as husband and wife dealt with grief in different ways. Gina often forgets in the bottom of a glass. Donovan lost his pregnant daughter, her partner and his unborn grandchild; grief has caused his wife to withdraw into her own world, agoraphobic she stays at home. Maggie lost her daughter, newly-promoted station supervisor Rosie; Rosie is the scapegoat and Maggie receives hate mail. She understands the need of people to blame someone, and tries to deal with the anger and bitterness thrown her way, but is unable to ‘move on’ as her husband can. Jules lost his wife and is raising his young son alone. None of these people were there on the day but they are also victims. Add to this mix the two lawyers, Eric and Sorrel. It is Eric’s cussedness, his determination to unravel the truth, to read obscure documents about operating procedures and identify the failings, that makes the new inquest possible. He proves that accidents happen because of an unpredictable collision of small things. I found Eric’s sections about the minutae of the accident, the legal arguments, the leaden language of official documents, to be a slow read that interupts the flow of emotions as Gina, Tamsin, Donovan, Maggie and Jules process their grief.
Ultimately, Jules is the catalyst for resolution. Transformed from plumber to artist, his reputation has gradually grown. Now a commission from the Tate Modern to produce a collection of art about the disaster allows ‘the 59’ to achieve a form of public resolution to their grief. The story came alive for me with Jules and his art. He takes the story of each survivor or relative and uses small items to tell a huge story, about their grief, their anger, the need to hit out, the need to be recognised.
Davis writes well about the powerful emotion unleashed by the accident, and its lasting effects. This book is about the nature of victimhood and how it is possible to shake it off if you have the will to do so. But that does not mean forgetting. Davis shows the transition of remembering; at the beginning, the second inquest has refreshed the trauma anew; but at the end, memories are welcomed in.
Smash All The Windows won the inaugural 2019 Selfies award, a new award celebrating the quality of indie authors. Selfies is run by Book Brunch in association with the London Book Fair and sponsored by IngramSpark. Read more about Jane Davis’s other books here.
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