Short and Bittersweet

0393067203.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Coventry by Helen Humphries ★★★★
Edition: W. W. Norton & Company (2009), 1st American Ed, Hardcover, 192 pages
Original publication date: 2008

I read this book in just two sittings—yes, partly because it’s short, but also because it made for compulsive reading and was very difficult to put down. It’s my first book by Helen Humphreys, and I think the others currently on my wishlist will end up on the TBR sooner rather than later. Two women and a young man are at the heart of this novel which mostly takes place during one terrifying night, during the worst and most destructive of a series of German blitzes on the city of Coventry, UK, this one occurring on November 14th, 1940. Our first glimpse of Harriet Marsh, the lead character, is when she is perched on the roof of Coventry cathedral on firewatching duty just before the bombs start raining down. As a woman, she shouldn’t really be there, but she’s replacing her injured neighbour that night, which is how she meets the young Jeremy Fisher, another firewatcher who, unbeknownst to her at this point, will end up spending the better part of the night with her, as they both try to reach their homes, which are located close to each other and where Jeremy hopes to find his mother Maeve. As they make their way through the city, the are forced to walk through the burning inferno that Coventry has become, with the constant pounding of bombs, buildings toppling at every moment, trying to help victims who are instantly buried in the detritus in front of their very eyes, and hoping not to get exploded to bits themselves or to find their homes annihilated either. Harriet had already lived through the First War twenty-six years earlier, to which she lost her young husband, both only eighteen years-old and just married at the time. He’d gone missing and probably killed a few weeks after he’d enlisted and left for the front on September 1914, just one month into the war, and Harriet has never gotten over the grief of her loss. He’d only had the chance to send her one letter, and she’s held onto this relic like a talisman ever since, and when the novel begins, she is convinced that this second war with the Germans can’t possibly have such a devastating impact on her as did the Great War. But in this she is mistaken of course, and at that point she can’t possibly know that Jeremy is the son of a woman she’d casually met 26 years before, on the very day she’d seen her newlywed husband off at the train station.

I found this short review by the Guardian, which I thought did a better job at resuming the book than I ever could, though I should say that it’s written from the perspective of a British person who is familiar with the history of the war as it happened in her own country, unlike myself, to whom the events of that night were formerly mostly unknown and therefore did not seem quite as inevitable, which took nothing away from the story—quite the contrary in fact:

“To set a character on the roof of Coventry cathedral on the night of 14 November 1940 leaves no doubt about the path the narrative will take. The inevitability of the firestorm sounds ominously from the first sentence of Coventry, but Helen Humphreys makes of that certainty a subtly crafted, surely paced novel. From Harriet Marsh looking up at a “bomber’s moon”, we slip back to a meeting between her and another young woman on a tram at the outbreak of the first world war. Long before either Harriet, Jeremy, the young man with whom she shares firewatching duties, or his mother, fleeing the desperate bonhomie of drinkers in a pub cellar, realises, the reader is aware that the bombing of Coventry will tie up the loose ends of that earlier encounter. Bleak images of death are counterpointed by moments of escape. As Harriet and Jeremy pick their way through collapsed buildings and burning streets, a fleeing horse embodies the possibility of survival. Coventry hauntingly depicts the nightmarish power of chance.” (Isobel Montgomery, The Guardian, 12 September 2009)


One thought on “Short and Bittersweet

  1. Interesting, this, name-wise: as per her website, Humphreys was born in Kingston-on-Thames and now lives in Kingston, Ontario

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