I really like Helen Humphrey's writing. Although a number of years have passed since I've read her earlier novels, Afterimage and The Lost Garden, her style lingers in my mind with pleasant associations. And while Coventry packs an emotional punch, it is just as poetically drawn as I remember those previous stories being. As I was reading I was thinking about why an author chooses to write a story set in an earlier historical era rather than a contemporary setting. I know why I like reading historical novels--in order to learn something more about life in another time, but what does the setting add to a story? In the case of Humphreys, I think writing about and focusing on the bombing raid on Coventry on November 14, 1940, is a way for her to explore grief and the ways in which humans cope with those emotions during times of severe stress and their ability to show resiliency in the face of utter loss.
"She looks around the field, at all the darkened figures shifting around the perimeter. Everyone in this field, everyone in the city will have lost someone or something tonight. Everyone will have to remake their lives. And the men dropping the bombs, the men in the planes slicing through the darkness, they will bear no witness to the misery and suffering they've caused."
Although not the first night of bombing by the German Luftwaffe, November 14 was the most intense and the most devastating to the industrial city of Coventry. Humphreys vividly brings to life that night as experienced by two women and a young man as they try and navigate the destruction. There were moments of shock and terrible sadness reading about the war from a civilian's viewpoint--shock because you expect such horrific images on a battlefield and not on quiet city streets, and sadness because humans seem to have an endless capacity for inflicting suffering on each other.
But the story begins some twenty years earlier just as the First World War is beginning, when newly married Harriet sees off her husband Owen in what they both believe will be only a brief war. Everyone thought it would be over by Christmas, so Harriet is determined to be patient. Alone in this new city that her husband has brought her to, a chance encounter with another young woman who is visiting a friend will set the stage for a much longer lasting friendship. Though the two had promised to meet again, Maeve returned to her home without keeping the meeting and not having exchanged names the two lose touch. When Owen is reported missing and believed dead, Harriet feels the loss acutely. She feels it twice over after the missed opportunity of making a friend.
Many years later Harriet is still living in Coventry, a city that has withstood seventeen attacks and the threat of more on the city's motor works and armament factories. Not having any family or anywhere else to go she has remained in her husband's city to be close to him and isn't unduly bothered by this new war thinking it cannot make her suffer (emotionally at leas, though perhaps physically) in the same way the first one did. Unbeknownst to her, Maeve has also returned to Coventry with her almost grown son, a child she had out of wedlock and raised on her own. The two have led nomadic lives, but Jeremy hopes this will be the place where they can finally put down roots.
Their paths will eventually cross on this terrible night. Harriet agrees to take over her neighbor's shift as a fire-watcher on the roof of Coventry Cathedral as he has injured his leg. He assures Harriet that he has never once had to put out a fire, and Harriet expects the night to pass quietly. The night is brightly lit by the moon, however, a "bomber's moon". And indeed bombs soon begin raining down on the city. While the fire-watchers were able to extinguish the first few incendiaries, it soon begins to be a conflagration and they must abandon their places on the roof. Jeremy is one of the fire-watchers and it's obvious he has been rattled by the fire that has started, so Harriet takes him under her wing and the two decide to set off in search of his mother.
Their journey, which takes up the bulk of this very slim novel, is at times harrowing and surreal. They encounter death and destruction but also scenes of charity and compassion. I didn't expect a story set so far from the battlefields to have such moments of unremitting sadness and distress, though this is not the first book I've read about the Blitz, it struck me powerfully for some reason. Humphreys doesn't sensationalize anything but there were moments I wanted to look away. Maybe it was the eloquence of her language and spareness of her prose that helped soften the blow just a bit. Her imagery was still intense and you get a sense of what it might have been like on that fateful night when so many people lost their lives and much of the city was damaged or flattened. Something like 80% of the people who died in Coventry during the Blitz did so on the night of November 14/15. Coventry Cathedral was the only cathedral in Britain to be destroyed in the way.
Despite such descriptive scenes, this was still an introspective story, as much about the inner lives of the two women (and I know I've not said much about Maeve) as about what was happening to the city. And while it is a story that is filled with sadness and grief it does end on a hopeful note. I really like Helen Humphreys and will continue to read (and reread) her work.
Last fall I was thinking what a great reading pair Coventry and Heinrich Boll's The Silent Angel would make and now I've finally read them both. Interesting perspectives on the effects of the war as felt by those on the homefront both in Britain and Germany. Next up is Nigel Balchin's Darkness Falls from the Air, about the London Blitz, which I am looking forward to reading. Below are the ruins of Coventry Cathedral which were integrated into the newer building.
I read this as part of Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. I very much liked this story, but do admit it is a slender novel. I'm a little torn between wishing there had been a bit more story and thinking that maybe it was just enough. I seem to be the odd reader out reaction-wise, so you'll want to take a look at other reviews before deciding whether this one is for you or not.
Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.
Anna at Diary of an Eccentric.
TBM at Fifty Year Project.
Tony at Tony's Reading List.
And a bit of background on the city of Coventry and Coventry Cathedral by Tony.
I may have to come up with a list of books about the Blitz--actually the bombing of civilian centers in both Britain and Germany. Any suggestions welcome to get the ball rolling.