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.

35 thoughts on “Helen Humphreys: Coventry (2008) Literature and War Readalong April 2012

  1. Hi Caroline. I haven’t finished my review just yet, but I thought I would comment on yours. I was torn about this book. I loved the writing, but I felt the story missed something. The description of the night is amazing and I can’t imagine living through this, but I thought Harriet’s attitude, and sometimes Maeve, were just too cold and unfeeling. I enjoyed their memories that played through their heads but sometimes they weren’t believable. Would they have that much time to think about their past before making a decision in the present with bombs falling all around? But I loved her words. Maybe this is why I have a hard time connecting with poetry, it isn’t real enough for me and this novel, like you said, is written like a poet would write it. Does that make sense?

    • I does absoltely make sense and is almost how I wrote it. I thought she writes very well but like you, it seemed oddly cold and distant. I most certainly wouldn’t be thinking of anything else but the war and what is happening. I hope you can read Tony’s posts, I found them very interesting, also the link to an interview with Helen Humphreys. Everything she writes about that night comes from books, obviously, but I felt it.
      I’m curious to see how the next book will treat the Blitz as Balchin lived through it and the novel was published in 1942. That will be a great comparison.
      I’m looking forward to reading your review.

      • Harriet was an extremely cold person. I wondered if she was depicted this way since she lost her husband so young or because she was showing a poet in action. I couldn’t tell. But on many occasions I thought to myself, wow she isn’t a nice person. I’ll have to check out Tony’s posts.

        • I can really understand how losing your husband or partner would chnage you forever and not in a good way. I could also deduce that she was devastated from what she thought and that she went to Ypres, but I didn’t feel it at all. I liked Maeve and I liked the way they became friends without really knowing each other but found the fastforwarding to teir future friendship frustrating. Yes, you should read Tony’s post. It’s interesting to read the perspective from someone who comes from Coventry.

  2. Definitely a case of style over substance. I feel she chose an interesting time in history and used it for her own purposes, rather than doing her subject justice. Disappointing 😦

  3. Pingback: Coventry: Literature and War Readalong | 50 Year Project

    • This wouldn’t be a book for you at all. It will be even more interesting to read Balchin just after this.
      Btw I’m just finishing They Shoot Horses, Dont’They?…. Long live the kindle who can satisfy the most urgent read need/greed… I bet my review will surprise you. It’s not not due before the end of the week though.

  4. What an odd novel. It would be too strange to read about war in a lyrical way. I just watched Birdsong last night and the horrors of the Great War were just that.
    I’ll be interested to see the interview with Humphreys.

    • Odd but with many wonderful passages. I still haven’t watched Birdsong but it’s one of my favourite war novels.
      I thought the interview was a video but it’s a written interview. I would have liked to see her talk. The interview didn’t convince me really. And even less after having read Tony’s review.

      • The movie really emphasized how terrible and pointless war is. I’m not sure I could take the even-more-detailed and realistic book.

        The interview with Humphreys made me want to read her book even less, I’m afraid. It takes a truly brilliant writer to conjure something you’ve never experienced and make it come alive, but it sounds like Humphreys missed the mark. Her book The Lost Garden sounds like a better fit for her talents.
        I thought it was fascinating that she once pumped gas for a living!

        • I’ve read The Lost Garden and it’s beautiful. She is very talented, there is no doubt about it. The first word Tony used when describing Coventry was “light” – and that’s it, it’s too light for the subject.
          Meanwhile I found a guardian review and they called it too elegiac.

  5. Thanks for linking to my review! It’s been a long time since i read this one. I agree that the coincidence was a bit much, but I overlooked that since I just loved the writing. I don’t mind lyrical descriptions of war. I find it interesting that authors find so many ways to express such a horrible thing, and I’m really impressed when they can do it in a beautiful way. I remember just being disappointed that the book was so short.

    • You are welcome. I read your review and saw ou liked it somewhat better but I know when you are eally enthusisatic – that’ does sound different. be it length, be it substance, something was missing but without any doubt, she writes beautfully.
      I agree with you, what I loved is seeing another approach. I find it amazing as well how many different ways there are to tell these horrible stories.

  6. Yes, I ican quite understand your feeling that the language was too beautiful for the subject matter. Lyric writing is not necessarily my favourite type – it takes a truly brilliant writer (Colette is the one who first springs to mind) to make it work really well. And then, the right language for the topic feels so satisfying. Sometimes, ugliness needs ugly prose (and I think of Duras, who was the past master of grindingly ugly writing and its emotional effects). I enjoyed Humphries novel on Victor Hugo, which I read last year, but will probably skip this one. Thank you for the lovely review!

    • Thanks, Litlove. She isn’t lyrical in Colette’s way. Colette’s writing does always feel strong, this is too airy for my taste in this novel, although in other books it’s wonderful. There were moments in the book when I thought “How lovely, I would have loved to see that”. But we are talking about the Blitz, the almost total destruction of a city and it’s inhabitants and animals! Danielle’s review is completely different as you will see and she felt the sadness and the terror… Maybe it’s me then. I need it to be more explicit.

  7. 1. I did not like the characters.

    2. The scenes in the bombed city are hellish and interesting, but become repetitive. They go back into the city? Been there, done that.

    3. It’s a small world in the city of Coventry! Harriet hooks up with Maeve’s son. Harriet and Maeve reunite in the field. Unrealistic. Too Hollywoodish.

    4. The love scene was ridiculous and ugh-worthy. Thank God it was not graphic. I would not be able to get that image out of my head.

    5. The most ridiculous part was Harriet leaving the aid station to get tea. (Those British will do anything for a spot of tea!) She meets a guy who conveniently has hot water coming from a busted pipe and then conveniently he dies with a “twist of tea” in his hand. Come on!

    6. Few quotable lines. Best: “And the men dropping the bombs, the men in the planes, slicing through the darkness, they will bear no witness to the misery and suffering they have caused.” Good line, but trite and where else would they be dropping bombs from?

    7. Boring. Few interesting similes. Awkward transitions from past to present tense. I did not find the writing to be anything special.

    Damn, I thought Bomber was the next book. I do not expect to like the Balchin book, but as always I am in for the ride.

    • We mostly agree on this one.
      Oh that love scene…. I think that was the killer for me. Withouth that my reactions would have been a bit more favourable. I would have bought the coincidence if she had met Maeve. That can happen. I’ve met the most unlikely people in the most un likely places, so, it isn’t impossible but like that?
      I peronally liked the tea story, liked how the man was gone within a minute. I don’t even think it’s not realistic.
      Your number 7 is interesting. I didn’t notice that at all.
      If Guy liked Balchin there is a chance you might as well. I’m sure it will be much more powerful.
      I liked Maeve but wasn’t keen on Harriet at all.
      Still, I liked parts of it and didn’t mind reading it at all.

      • I just didn’t understand why she had to include the love scene…so awkward. And I agree with you Caroline. Over the years and through my travels, I have bumped into people from my past all over the world. It really is a small world at times.

        • Yes, the coincidence as such wasn’t the problem but the way it was presented. Oh the love scene… It’s odd, early on while reading I was thinking “I hope those two are not going to get physically close” – but no, she had to write it.

          • The same thought went through my head and I thought in the beginning it wouldn’t work and then when I read the scene I knew that I was right. Was that the only way she could think of getting Jeremy out of the house to separate him from Harriet to have the ending she wanted.

            • I really think she wanted to show us how much Harriet had missed her husband. She mentions Jeremy was her husband’s age when she last saw him. It’s as if she was frozen in time, not realizing she herself grew older. She never had another love in her life.

  8. I read Tony’s review before yours, so I expected mixed feelings about it.

    Like Guy, I think it’s not for me.

    I’m a bit fed up with WWII stories, so it has to be very good for me to read one.

    • No, it wouldn’t be for you either. I think writing well about WWII takes a lot. I’ve read a few very good books but they are rare. So far I preferred most WWI and Vietnam novels.

  9. As usual I am probably too forgiving of a reader. As I was reading the novel some of the things mentioned here just didn’t strike me as being awkward at the time, but we all come at stories from different perspectives and experiences. Maybe because the characters were held at arm’s length made it easier to read, not sure. For me I was thinking about the grief Harriet felt from the first war and how it had impacted her life–and that made her somewhat distanced emotionally from it all. It was an interesting book–not perfect, but a different view of the war. If you’ve not yet read Sarah Waters’s Night Watch you might give that a try.

    • I find it so interesting that we all read books in a different way. I think the title guided me the wrong way. It really is as much a WWI as a WWII novel. I have only read one of her novels a long time ago, when I read your review, it was obvious you were more familiar with her style and were much more empathic in your reading. Still I liked many parts of it and am glad I read it.
      Thanks for the tip, I haven’t read Night Watch.

  10. Nice review, Caroline! It looks like Helen Humphreys writes beautifully, and the premise of this novel is quite interesting, but somehow the story and the writing style don’t go well together. Once in a while, I like reading novels which value style over substance and so when I am in the mood for that next time, I will read a Helen Humphreys novel. I really want to read her prose and compare it with that of John Banville, whose prose I really love. Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • Thanks, Vishy. I haven’t read anything by John Banville in a while, I need to get back to him. I would say his style is more elaborate than Helen Humphreys’. I liked The Lost Garden by her a lot.
      Maybe the story of the bombing of Coventry Cathedral is almost to big a story to be told in such a short book.

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  12. well written review Caroline.
    I enjoyed reading it and it made me remember a book I read few years ago, it was also poetically written but in a modern kind of poet.
    I would love to read this just for the language, like you have said, but I am not sure I want to buy and own it…I do hope you understand what I meant.

  13. Pingback: Richard Bausch: Peace (2008) Literature and War Readalong September 2012 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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