April 2009

Nicholas Hogg

fiction

Coventry by Helen Humphreys

Coventry, a cathedral city bombed to ruins on November 14, 1940, provides not only the backdrop for Helen Humphreys's latest novel, but could also claim to be a central character. Alongside Harriet Marsh and Maeve, two women who fleetingly meet in the city at the start of the First World War, and who will fatefully be drawn together again on the night of the Second World War blitz, Humphrey's clean and vivid prose gives the burning city a life, albeit briefly, as the bombs fall and buildings crumble.
           
After the opening scenes of flaring incendiaries, the warning signs of the thousands of shells about to drop from the night sky, the narrative jumps back to September 20, 1914. Harriet's husband, Owen, has barely been introduced to the reader before they bid farewell on a station platform where he is despatched by train to the mire of Ypres. But this is not a fault of plotting. We therefore share the sudden loss, and the remoteness of grieving for a man Harriet barely knew before his death. Letters from the front are the only contact he and Harriet share.

After the war, in an effort to understand something of Owen, the eighteen-year-old husband who died before they had even lived together, Harriet makes a journey to the Belgian town where he is listed as one of the 90,000 British casualties with no known grave. Between the broken stumps of trees shredded by shelling, Humphreys prose works economic brilliance to connect us with the character's anguish.

Echoes of this tragedy will come to bind Harriet and Maeve on the night of the Coventry inferno. On the evening the Luftwaffe chose Coventry's armament factories as a target for barrage, Harriet has been talked by a friend into covering his fire watch duty on the cathedral roof. After futile attempts to quench the flames rippling through the wooden rafters, Harriet and another fire watcher, the youthful Jeremy, embark on a journey through the torched and exploding streets to find his mother. Clambering through the rubble and flames they are drawn together in the midst of the horrors.
 
Having family from Coventry -- on the night of the raid my grandmother walked out of dance at a barracks in Worcester and described the fiery city like a sunrise -- I am perhaps a closer critic of the dialogue than most readers, but feel that the very standard English is a vehicle rather than bona fide conversation. In some sense this keeps us from the character's inner world, as do the occasionally theatrical asides to the death and destruction -- Harriet's quest for a cup of tea. However, I should give Humphreys's research the benefit of the doubt here, as my grandma confirmed that the stranger the story from that evening, the more likely it was true.

But these are minor criticisms to a book which is ultimately a deft study of love, loss and remembrance; how Harriet and Maeve reconstruct lives dominated by tragedy. Like the city itself. When Humphreys takes us from the smouldering dawn of the morning after in 1940, to May 26, 1962, and the grand re-opening of Coventry Cathedral, it serves as a fitting symbol of what recovery the characters themselves have achieved.

Coventry by Helen Humphreys
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393067203
192 Pages

Nicholas Hogg, author of Show Me the Sky