Coventry by Helen Humphreys

These are sad times. (hold that thought…lol)

I picked up the book, Coventry, and had it read in an afternoon.  I love it when an afternoon of leisurely everything allows for me to pick up a book, curl up under the wool blanket that Leah gifted me, and read.  At 175 pages of elegantly flowing prose, I highly recommend this one, as we move toward Remembrance Day 2017.

In 2015 I sat, gobsmacked when I watched the evening news…one historical/ancient site or artifact after another looted, destroyed and left in ruins by Isis.   We don’t talk about it very much anymore, but the destruction in Khorsabad as well as the revered sites of Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra – (designated or nominated to be UNESCO World Heritage sites) – were attacked and left in shambles by the caliphate.

This book creates, for the reader, an image of what it was really like during the Blitz.  This particular novel, an historical fiction, deals with the event on November 14, 1940 when Coventry Cathedral was destroyed.  The story is told through the experiences of two females; Harriet and Maeve.  There are some excellent reviews on line about this book and I have arrived at some similar thoughts on events, especially.  For one, without posting a spoiler, there is a significant event that I felt was unnecessary to the flow of the narrative.  You will know the moment when you come to it.

Second to that, I was somewhat disappointed that Humphreys did not create a stronger relationship between the two protagonists.  I think that Humphreys writes such beautiful characters that it would have been very satisfying to delve more into their connection and build a stronger relationship.

There were times while reading when I had tears,…such devastation during a single event in our collective history!  Yet, as I look at what events are taking place in our world today…and just what a fragile peace remains in so many parts of the world, I find myself, almost daily, wondering why human beings have not learned from past mistakes.   An article that deals successfully with this very topic and the elegizing of literary content is written by Adam Haslett in a New York Times piece.

Dianne, on Goodreads, writes…

A new author for me and one in whose writing I quickly fell in love. Her sentences are so fluid, her words almost lulling, just wonderful. This provides a sharp contrast to the heartfelt descriptions of the bombing and destruction of Coventry during WWII. Can goods bursting, windows shattering, broken glass raining down, potatoes rolling on the now crooked floor, a man shaving one minute but gone the next, people running through the streets with metal pots on their heads, and of course houses no longer standing, piles of rubble and the bodies laying wherever they fell. The Cathedral which was the town’s pride and joy would be the only Cathedral in Britain to be destroyed during the war.

We inhabit such a beautiful planet.  It is difficult to consider the destruction that is caused by humanity.  I did not know about Coventry until reading this book.  Highly recommend this one.

A link to an excellent interview with the author.

Coventry

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

Yes!  I’m getting caught up on my reviews…hardly reviews…but, posting a bit of feedback, for my own records.

A brief aside:  I’ve had a hit on my blog from Bangladesh this morning.  These things amaze me and I often do not notice, unless I am busy writing something as I am this morning.  I look outside at the blue-white day and am grateful for the steaming hot coffee on my desk and my dog, Max, who curls up at my feet.

I was with Hollee in the bookstore this summer when I saw a book titled The River by Helen Humphreys.  It was filled with maps and archives and bits of observation…all things that I relish about life these days. When I leafed through it, I knew that I wanted to read it some time…but, buying a book wasn’t in my budget, not at that time.  Now, these months later, I still have not purchased or read that book, but have read two other Humphreys books that found themselves on the very generous discount shelves of a book store, one is The Evening Chorus and the other, Coventry.

The Evening Chorus was of particular interest to me because the protagonist, James Hunter, who through unfortunate events, found himself a POW during the second World War and ends up keeping his connection with normalcy through the daily observations of a nest of Redstarts.  In the back Author’s Notes, one actually reads that while this is a book of fiction, it is connected with three historical and documented events.  I love history, and so, of course, this would interest me.   So, underpinnings to the novel include 1. There was a Wellington bomber that went down in the Ashdown Forest during World War II. 2. There was a German prison camp Kommandant who shared a family of Cedar Waxwings with a prisoner.  3. John Buxton was a wartime birdwatcher who wrote a book about the Redstart.  I could only dream to have a copy of his book.

I’ve discovered that I’m a detail lady and this book describes, very carefully, the challenges faced by James Hunter and his peers in the POW camp, the struggles of family back home and the simple act of documenting, writing about and drawing, daily observations of a family of Redstarts.  Retired and self-directed, I am blessed daily with the experiences of ‘slowing down’ time by entering into a process of observing nature.  I surround the words, ‘slowing down’, with single quotation marks because it is my intention that by entering into that process of observation of nature, time will slow, but in actuality, three hours can go by very quickly as I become immersed.

The fact that I share some of the rituals of the protagonist, I was very at home with this book.  Helen Humphreys is generous, lyrical and authentic in her portrayal of the motivation of characters throughout.

A terrific read and at a great price…but then, historical fiction is my favourite.

The Evening Chorus, when all is said and done, is a formally conventional but for the most part satisfying yarn; a quiet novel about a calamitous event whose most trenchant passages show the cast of Humphreys’s poet’s eye: “The song of the redstart begins as a melody and ends in dissonance, as though the song itself comes undone in the process of singing it, finishing up with all the right notes presented in the completely wrong order.”

Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor.

The Evening Chorus

 

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