The stone walls are scattered like broken, human music across the countryside. Used to mark boundaries, they were made from clearing the fields. The size of the stones gets progressively smaller as the walls get higher. The large stones are all at the base of the wall, and the walls themselves are only as high as my waist. Perhaps this is as high as a man can lift a stone without having to raise his hands above his heart.
The walls are like language. They are like fine tracery with the light behind them, like lace, and, in a sense, they are no different from these words – each one lifted slowly into place and balanced on this page. ~ from Coventry, by Helen Humphreys
Like the intricate but sturdy beauty of a stone wall, Helen Humphreys has selected the perfect words to construct her novel. Slender and delicate in size, it contains a powerful story, one as timeless as the ancient stone walls which line country roads all over England.
On November 14, 1940, the German Luftwaffe literally bombarded Coventry, a small, industrial city in southern England. Humpreys chose this dark night in history for her background, and carefully placed three people in the midst of it – Harriet Marsh, a WW I widow; Maeve Fisher, a talented artist who has recently moved to Coventry; and Jeremy Fisher, Maeve’s son, an eager young man with all of life before him, who reminds Harriet of her husband. Harriet and Jeremy begin the night together, sharing the post of fire-watcher atop Coventry Cathedral, the centerpiece of town. Meanwhile, Maeve is in her favorite pub, relaxing and sketching the locals who frequent the place. When the bombs begin to fall, demolishing homes and businesses, raining fire across the sky, Harriet finds herself attached to Jeremy as they roam the streets, dodging explosions and searching for Maeve.
In a podcast interview, Humpreys talked about the sparks which ignited her idea for this book. “I wanted to show the effect of war on women,” she said, particularly the generation of women who lived through two major, horrific wars. Humpreys also mentions her interest in the inevitable destruction during war, the way an “entire city could be flattened in a 12 hour period.” Meticulously researched, Humpreys includes incidents which were reported by eye witnesses, people who lived through that awful night.
Through skillful story telling and elegant, thoughtful prose, Humpreys connects the lives of her three characters in amazing ways. Each event, each person met on the journey, each memory, and each loss becomes another stone this author carefully sets in place and balances in the edifice of her story. In the space of less than 200 small pages, Humpreys evokes this night of tragedy while managing to leave the reader with a sense of steadfast hope. For in the midst of terror and destruction, a human bond is formed, a bond strong enough to withstand the ravages of war and death, proving once again the power of connection, so that “even in the loneliest of griefs” we need not be alone.
Coventry, by Helen Humpreys
published in America, February 2009 by W.W. Norton and Co.