This is a fictionalized look at an event that really happened. 173 really did die, suddenly and unexpectedly, in a London air raid shelter during WWII. So. With a book like this, where you know Something Bad is going to happen, the question is only: When? The author teases things out, gets us invested in the characters and their lives, making note of tiny little details that might seem important or tragic later, and the suspense is all built up by the reader wondering when when when is this Bad Thing going to happen?
This book is absolutely nothing like that. The Bad Thing happen so fast it's actually shocking. I was like: "Wait, what? It's happening? I'm not ready!" Brilliant, right? True to life. The Bad Thing happens, and we spend the book taking it apart, and seeing what happened to the people afterward. It's a slow fade, rather than a cymbal crash.
The writing is absolutely stunning, and it's remarkable that Kane is able to find little moments of grace and beauty in a story that is so, so, so, so sad. It's brutal. I don't even know how a person writes a story like this. A mother who lost one of her two children in the crush says: "I think I could endure anything. I'm not even scared. If I died I would miss Tilly, but I feel as though I have a child on each side of an abyss now and death would be just crossing over to spend time with the one I haven't seen in a while."
If I can make an odd juxtapositional leap, thematically this book reminded me of Sondheim's Into the Woods. In the midst of a huge and complicated argument about whose fault everything is, the Wicked Witch says: "No, of course, what really matters is the blame. Somebody to blame." That's what the characters in this book are struggling with as well. When Something Bad happens, it needs to be one person's fault, in order for everyone to feel better and start putting the past behind them. But it's never really like that, that never really works. Ultimately, what's the benefit of assigning blame?
Difficult stuff to be wrestling with, and this book does a powerful and amazing job.