Helen Humphreys: Coventry (2008) Literature and War Readalong April 2012

Helen Humphrey’s novel Coventry starts with a woman and a young man standing on Coventry cathedral, on November 14, 1942. Harriet and Jeremy are fire fighters. It’s an eerie night, almost beautiful.

The moon is full and bright and the ground below the cathedral is white with frost. Harriet has never seen anything so beautiful. The ground glitters like the sea and smells of earthy cold.

This is the night in which Coventry cathedral will be bombed and most of the city destroyed. But when the bombs start falling and even after most of the destruction, Harriet still sees beauty.

The leaves have burnt black on the trees. The limbs are twisted and full of clothes, caught there like strange birds in the upper branches. The clothes must have blown up there from a bomb blast.

Harriet remembers the morning of November 14. How beautiful it was, all sun, and only a little wind to remind her of autumn. It was a thursday, early closing. She had gone round to the shops before lunch, and she had felt lucky because she was first in line at the butcher’s and got sausages.

Until this evening Harriet didn’t feel touched by the war. She is disappointed by it but not devastated. She will not, as she believes, suffer like she did in the last war when she lost the man she loved.

After the brief initial chapter, the novel moves back to 1914. A young Harriet sees her husband off to war. The very same morning, after returning from the train station, she meets Maeve, and lives a moment of intense friendship with the young woman. Harriet will not see her husband again. He goes missing in the trenches. And until the night of November 1940, she will not see Maeve again either.

Unbeknownst to all of them, the young man on the roof with Harriet, is Maeve’s son. The story of the two women’s lives will unfold during the novel, interwoven with the story of this tragic night in which the three fight in parallel and together, for their survival.

Harriet has never loved again and Maeve who left Coventry shortly after having met Harriet, gets pregnant. She doesn’t even know which one of the slodiers she was seeing is the father.

Most of the chapters focus on Harriet and Jeremy who flee from the burning cathedral, roam the streets, hide in shelters, run from the bombs and burning debris. They are looking for Maeve and their houses, anxious to discover how much they might have lost. The destruction is incredible, the sight of so many dead people is terrible but it’s even more harrowing to hear voices coming out from underneath demolished houses and not be able to help, to stand by and hear them suffocate. There are many descriptions of people whose life is snatched away within a second. One moment they are talking, shaving, walking, the next moment they are gone.

Coventry is a lyrical novel, written by a poet, telling the story of a poet who is trying to make sense. Since the tragic loss of her young husband, Harriet has written condensed descriptions. They shield her from emotion, give sense. That’s what she will do in the future as well. After the terrible night in which Coventry is destroyed, she will become a poet.

While Harriet paints with words, Maeve captures everything that has happened with her pencil. Already when they met in 1914 she was drawing constantly.

I’m in two minds about this book. It’s an intense description of what it meant to be in a city undergoing such massive destruction. This is well captured, at the same time, the addition of descriptions like the ones above, hold the horrors at arm’s length. I’m interested in the depiction and description of war. How do you put it into words, how do speak about the unspeakable? I think this was one of Helen Humphrey’s intentions, to show how a poet would write and feel about this horrible night. That’s why, more than a book about Coventry’s ordeal, this was for me a book about the birth of a poet. And that’s precisely what troubles me. I’ve read other books by Helen Humphreys and liked them, but in this case I feel the writing is too lyrical and esthetic for its topic. And there is the coincidence at the heart of the story, the fact that the young man Harriet spends the night with is Maeve’s son. Unfortunately I really don’t do well with this type of coincidence.

Coventry is a beautifully written book, the novel of a stylist but some rough edges would have given it a whole other dimension that would have been more appropriate for the subject. Still, and this may seem paradoxical, it is a book I would like to read again, if only for its language. Maybe I’m not doing it justice, maybe I’m just not used to someone describing war in such a lyrical way and depicting people who are so caught in their inner lives that they seem ultimately untouched by the collective experience of destruction.

I’m very curious to see what others thought.

Other reviews

Additionally to his review Tony has written an interesting post on his hometown Coventry and the Coventry Cathedral. It’s well worth reading.

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

TBM (50 Year Project)

Tony (Tony’s Reading List)


Coventry was the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Nigel Balchin’s Darkness Falls From the Air. Discussion starts on Monday May 28, 2012.