Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys

…a late wake up time for me this morning, but I’ve decided to begin the day with a quick book review.  I haven’t reviewed my reading for months now, so, over the coming weeks, I might write one here and there, as I’m at the easel and don’t want to steal too much writing time from that.  I do love writing.  And it relaxes me, all the while giving me the same fearful moments as  I stare at the blank pages as I have when I tremble before a blank panel in the studio.

I have read Helen Humphreys before and thoroughly enjoy her connections with history…such an interesting measure of history and fiction that I have no troubles labeling her writing style as very unique.  While there are some reviews that say that this novel is unresolved, I beg to differ.  This is one of my favourite reads of summer.  It’s a quick read, although this review says that the first half will slow you down, but with the caveat that if the reader takes an interest in the craft of writing, this section might be just as magical as the second.  I am this person.

The book is titled, Machine Without Horses, a somewhat deceiving title, but it will make sense for the reader in time.  Oh, never mind…I’ll offer my readers the literal meaning to start.

Given my time at the river, I’ve been speaking with the fly fishermen and others about their fishing rituals, this past summer.  One evening I had a particularly interesting chat with a young man who shared his enthusiasm for fly dressing.  When I met him he was stooped over with a small screen, capturing the nymphs or larvae of the flies and bugs that were seen hovering above the water and the vegetation that particular evening.  Once identified, then he would make his selection from his collection.  He shared these with me.

I told him about what I had learned about the fine art of fly dressing while reading the book, Machine Without Horses and he was intrigued.  The novel is based on a Scottish protagonist and historical crafts person, Megan Boyd who gained a magical love and ability for salmon fly-dressing.  She worked tirelessly at the craft for some sixty years.  Megan provides the basis for the novel, but the means in which Humphreys writes this character is fascinating to me.

I hope that my young nephew, Jake, reads this post as he has tackled fly-dressing and I’m curious, now, if he continues to do this.  Here are a few of Megan Boyd’s flies.

In the first half of the book, we meet a writer who has come upon the obituary of Mary Boyd.  From the first spark, we learn what motivates the writer (fictional writer?  Helen?  who knows?) to tackle this subject.  The reader becomes an observer of the writer’s process as she develops characters, events and setting.  It is all so fascinating.  As a huge relief, the reader then moves into the historical fiction with greater insight/knowledge about the narrative that unfolds. I’m leaving the synopsis just like this because I don’t wish to introduce you to any bits other than the protagonist and perhaps to say that the setting in Scotland…the atmosphere…the ocean views…and the rivers captivated me.

I think that this is a great little book and highly recommend.  I know. I know.  I certainly don’t have the same tastes in books as many of my friends, but give this one a try.  I’m linking up to the other reviews I might have written on Helen Humphrey’s books.  I may have my friend, Hollee Card, to credit for discovering this author and picked up my first book of hers, Coventry, in a second hand book store.  Other novels were read by the same author, but not reviewed.  One of the most aesthetically written books on my shelf is The River by Helen Humphreys.  I also encourage you, if you romanticize about place, as I do, to pick this one up.

Coventry by Helen Humphreys

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

 

 

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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