In her new novel Coventry, Helen Humphreys again demonstrates that she can cover more emotional ground in 177 pages than other novelists can 600-page tomes. Not that there’s anything wrong with longer books, but Humphreys seems to be getting closer and closer to producing the perfectly compressed novel.
With her fifth novel, the Kingston, Ontario-based writer returns to Great Britain during World War II, which was the setting for her third novel, The Lost Garden. The focus this time is on the city of Coventry on Nov 14, 1940. On that night, the city, a significant manufacturing centre, was the target of a devastating German air attack.
In the opening chapter, we meet Harriet Marsh, who is doing a shift as a fire-watcher when the bombing begins. Humphreys tells us, “For a few minutes the fire-watchers live up to their name — four dark figures stamped against a moonlit sky standing sentinel on the roof of the cathedral while the edges of the city begin to curl up and burn.” Through the night that metaphor becomes real.
The second chapter of the novel slips back to the early months of World War I, when Harriet’s husband Owen enlists in the army. Humphreys lays the emotional foundation for the novel in this section when Harriet experiences a brief period of happiness when she meets and marries Owen. On the morning of his departure Harriet meets a woman named Maeve and the two women spend the afternoon together; they agree to meet again the next day.
That meeting never takes place. For Harriet, it becomes one in a series of disappointments after Owen is reported as “missing, presumed killed” two months after he left England. For Maeve, as we come to realize later in the book, this will be one of many brief connections that she makes throughout her restless life, including the one that produces her son. As a single mother long before it was acceptable, constant movement is both a strategy and an inclination of her temperament.
Moving forward again to 1940, Harriet meets Jeremy, Maeve’s 22-year-old son, who is a fire-watcher on the cathedral roof with Harriet the night of the bombing. The two characters walk through Coventry during the bombing with Harriet helping Jeremy, who has only recently arrived in the city, find his way home. Of course she has no idea who his mother is. Their walk through the city is graphically described: the fire, the noise of the bombers overhead, the random destruction of buildings, the landscape and the human inhabitants are vividly captured and the effect is disturbing. There are people trapped under buildings, fires burning throughout the city, streets blocked by collapsed buildings and dust and smoke everywhere.
The depiction of the physical damage of war is a key element in the novel. The other, of course, is about the psychic damage: the interrupted lives, the difficult decisions individuals must make under awful circumstances and the inescapable burden of memory for those who live through so much loss. Humphreys presents the aftermath with grace, subtlety and no trace of sentimentality. She has always done that in her fiction and she just keeps getting better at it. The economy of the prose, combined with the deep immersion in the period and place is why her work is so moving.
There is a lovely dream-like sequence toward the end of the novel that creates the opportunity for a little self-reflexive artistry. In her exhaustion Harriet observes “the good thing about books is that they remain themselves. What happens in their pages stays there. Harriet does not like the idea of the story bleeding through into real life. She trusts a story and doesn’t trust real life. But what makes her trust a story is the knowledge that it will stay where it is, that she can visit it but that there is no chance it will visit her.”
Harriet comes to understand that the distinction between so-called real life and story is more complex than she thought. By the time the novel concludes, she understands that stories can be a way of making sense of real life and that telling stories is both a necessary component of real life and an effective way to cope with loss.