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.

Literature and War Readalong April 30 2012: Coventry by Helen Humphreys

With last month’s book we have left WWI behind us and move on to WWII. The first of the WWII books is Helen Humphreys’ novel Coventry. I thought this would be my first novel by this author but I have read another one before, The Lost Garden, a wonderfully lyrical coming-of-age story which I liked a lot. With this in mind I’m keen on reading Coventry. Helen Humphreys is British but she lives in Ontario, Canada. Helen Humphreys has won several prizes, she is the author of 4 novels, one book of narrative non-fiction and four collections of poetry. I have a weakness for poets who write novels or novelists who write poetry because the writing is usually far above the average.

On the back cover of the novel it says that Coventry is “a memorial to the terrible losses of wartime, and a celebration of remembrance, determination and resilience.” The book tells the story of two women and moves back and forth between 1919 and the night of the 14 November 1940.

Here are the first sentences

The swallow arcs and dives above the cathedral. Harriet March watches it flicker through the darkness ahead of her as she walks along the cobblestones towards the church. The bird moves in the night air with all the swiftness of sudden feeling, and Harriet stops at the base of the ladder, tracking the flight of the lone swallow as it shivers up the length of the church spire.


The discussion starts on Monday, 30 April 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2012

People have been announcing their challenges and events for 2012 for a while now so it was about time to let you see the list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong.

It was not easy to compile this list as the books needed to fulfill different criteria one of which was length. I didn’t want to include too many books over 300 pages. The only novel over 500 pages will make up for its length by being very readable.

The other criterion was the country. Like last year, I wanted to include books from as many different countries as possible. I know it looks as if there were more British books than anything else which is true, still I managed to include books from 8 different countries.

I will also join Anna and Serena for the War Through the Generations Challenge that is dedicated to WWI this year. My introductory post is due later this week. The first three novels in the readalong will also count for their challenge.

I have been asked whether it is possible to join but read something different. Since strictly speaking a readalong implies that people read and discuss the same book, it’s difficult but as I’m starting a Literature and War Project I thought of a good solution that will serve anyone who wants to join –  myself as well as I may be in the mood to read more than one novel focusing on war. The idea would be that anyone can join during the last week of the month and either participate in the readalong or review any other war themed book that will then be added to the project page. The objective of the page is to cover many different countries, wars, themes and even genres. For the War Through the Generations Challenge I will for example read a children’s book and maybe a crime novel set in the trenches. Next year I would also like to read a Sci-Fi novel like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War that has been suggested by Max from Pechorin’s Journal. And finally I would like to read more non-fiction.

This year’s readalong will not always take place on Fridays but alternate between Monday and Friday depending on whether the Friday is during the last week of the month or not.

January, Monday  30

Helen Dunmore Zennor in Darkness , 320 p., England (1993), WWI

Spring, 1917 and war haunts the Cornish coastal village of Zennor: ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy-fever. Into this turmoil come DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, hoping to escape the war-fever that grips London. They befriend Clare Coyne, a young artist, struggling to console her beloved cousin John William who is on leave from the trenches and suffering from shell shock. Yet the dark tide of gossip and innuendo means that Zennor is neither a place of recovery nor of escape …

February, Monday 27

Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way , 295 p.,  Ireland (2005), WWI

I discovered the book thanks to a comment from Danielle (A Work in Progress)

One of the most vivid and realised characters of recent fiction, Willie Dunne is the innocent hero of Sebastian Barry’s highly acclaimed novel. Leaving Dublin to fight for the Allied cause as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he finds himself caught between the war playing out on foreign fields and that festering at home, waiting to erupt with the Easter Rising. Profoundly moving, intimate and epic, A Long Long Waycharts and evokes a terrible coming of age, one too often written out of history.

March, Friday 30

Jean Giono:  Le grand troupeauTo the Slaughterhouse 224 p., France (1931), WWI

Conscription reaches into the hills as the First World War come to a small Provençal community one blazing August. Giono’s fiercly realistic novel contrasts the wholesale destruction of men, land and animals at the front with the moral disintegration of the lonely and anxious people left behind. Yet not all is despair. The novel ends with a message  of hope.

April, Monday 30

Helen Humphreys: Coventry,172 p., England (2008), WWII

Another book discovered thanks to Danielle (here)

On the night of the most devastating German raid on Coventry, two women traverse the city and transform their hearts. Harriet, widowed during WWI, is “”firewatching”” on the cathedral roof when first the factories and then the church itself are set ablaze. In the ensuing chaos she helps a young man, who reminds her of the husband she has lost, find his way back home where he left his mother.

May, Monday 28th

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls From The Air, 208 p., England (1942), WWII

I owe the discovery of Balchin to Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) who reviewed two of his books here and  here.

With ostentatious lack of concern, Bill Sarratt, his wife and her lover spend the war wining and dining expensively, occasionally sauntering out into the Blitz with cheerful remarks about the shattered night-life of London’s West End. But beneath the false insouciance lies the real strain of a war that has firmly wrapped them all in its embrace. Wit may crackle at the same pace as buildings burn, but personal tragedy lurks appallingly close at hand.

June, Friday 29

Len Deighton:  Bomber, 532 p., England (1970), WWII

This book is a suggestion from Kevin (The War Movie Buff). It is by far the longest on the list but it should be a very quick read.

The classic novel of the Second World War that relates in devastating detail the 24-hour story of an allied bombing raid.

Bomber is a novel war. There are no victors, no vanquished. There are simply those who remain alive, and those who die.Bomber follows the progress of an Allied air raid through a period of twenty-four hours in the summer of 1943. It portrays all the participants in a terrifying drama, both in the air and on the ground, in Britain and in Germany.In its documentary style, it is unique. In its emotional power it is overwhelming.Len Deighton has been equally acclaimed as a novelist and as an historian. In Bomber he has combined both talents to produce a masterpiece.

July, Monday 30

Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain – Kuroi Ame, 304 p., Japan (1969), WWII

I saw the book mentioned on Rise’s blog (in lieu of a field guide) where is was mentioned by Gary (The Parrish Lantern)

Black Rain is centered around the story of a young woman who was caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. lbuse bases his tale on real-life diaries and interviews with victims of the holocaust; the result is a book that is free from sentimentality yet manages to reveal the magnitude of the human suffering caused by the atom bomb. The life of Yasuko, on whom the black rain fell, is changed forever by periodic bouts of radiation sickness and the suspicion that her future children, too, may be affected.

lbuse tempers the horror of his subject with the gentle humor for which he is famous. His sensitivity to the complex web of emotions in a traditional community torn asunder by this historical event has made Black Rain one of the most acclaimed treatments of the Hiroshima story.

August, Friday 31

Aaron Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim, 208 p., Israel (1999), WWII

Aharon Appelfeld was the child of middle-class Jewish parents living in Romania at the outbreak of World War II. He witnessed the murder of his mother, lost his father, endured the ghetto and a two-month forced march to a camp, before he escaped. Living off the land in the forests of Ukraine for two years before making the long journey south to Italy and eventually Israel and freedom, Appelfeld finally found a home in which he could make a life for himself. Acclaimed writer Appelfeld’s extraordinary and painful memoir of his childhood and youth is a compelling account of a boy coming of age in a hostile world.

September, Friday 28

Richard Bausch: Peace, 171 p., US (2008), WWII

This was a suggestion from Sandra Rouse in a comment on one of this year’s readalong posts. 

It’s Italy, near Cassino. The terrible winter of 1944. A dismal icy rain falls, unabated, for days. Three American soldiers set out on the gruelling ascent of a perilous Italian mountainside in the murky closing days of the Second World War. Haunted by their sergeant’s cold-blooded murder of a young girl, and with only an old man of uncertain loyalties as their guide, they truge on in a state of barely suppressed terror and confusion. With snipers lying in wait for them, the men are confronted by agonizing moral choices…Taut and propulsive – Peace is a feat of economy, compression, and imagination, a tough and unmistakably contemporary meditation on the corrosiveness of violence, the human cost of war, and the redemptive power of mercy.

October, Monday 29

Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz, 128 p., Spain (1994), WWII

In the winter of 1991, at a concert in Krakow, an older woman with a marvelously pitched violin meets a fellow musician who is instantly captivated by her instrument. When he asks her how she obtained it, she reveals the remarkable story behind its origin.

Written with lyrical simplicity and haunting beauty—and interspersed with chilling, actual Nazi documentation—The Auschwitz Violin is more than just a novel: It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of beauty, art, and hope to triumph over the darkest adversity.

November, Friday 30

Gert Ledig The Stalin Front  –  Die Stalinorgel , 198 p., Germany (1955), WWII

1942, at the Eastern Front. Soldiers crouch in horrible holes in the ground, mingling with corpses. Tunneled beneath a radio mast, German soldiers await the order to blow themselves up. Russian tanks, struggling to break through enemy lines, bog down in a swamp, while a German runner, bearing messages from headquarters to the front, scrambles desperately from shelter to shelter as he tries to avoid getting caught in the action. Through it all, Russian artillery—the crude but devastatingly effective multiple rocket launcher known to the Germans as the Stalin Organ and to the Russians as Katyusha—rains death upon the struggling troops.

December, Friday 28

Michael Herr: Dispatches, 262 p., US (1977) Vietnam

This novel has been suggested by at least three people. Kevin (The War Movie Buff) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal)

If you’ve seen the movies Apocalypse Now and Platoon, in whose scripts Michael Herr had a hand, you have a pretty good idea of Herr’s take on Vietnam: a hallucinatory mess, the confluence of John Wayne and LSD.Dispatches reports remarkable front-line encounters with an acid-dazed infantryman who can’t wait to get back into the field and add Viet Cong kills to his long list (“I just can’t hack it back in the World”, he says); with a helicopter door gunner who fires indiscriminately into crowds of civilians; with daredevil photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of Errol, who disappeared somewhere inside Cambodia. Although Herr has admitted that parts of his book are fictional, this is meaty, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Vietnam.

I hope that many of you will feel tempted by the one or the other title on the list and am looking forward to great discussions. The books are all very different in tone, style and themes. As always there are a some I can hardly wait to read.


How does the readalong work?

This is just a quick info for those who are new to blogging and /or the readalong.

I will review the book on a set date during the last week of the month. If you choose to read along you can either participate in the discussion in the comments page or post a review on your blog. I will add all the links to the reviews at the bottom of my posts.

The books are usually announced with some additional information or a short introduction at the beginning of the month.


This post will be copied into the Literature and War Redalong 2012 page so you can find it again at any time.