Coventry – Helen Humphries (2008)

A short novel that emphasizes just how much a role chance can play in one’s life at different times. “Coventry” is set in the twentieth century and begins at the start of WWI, veers to WWII, and then moves even further forward to the 1970’s, but the connecting thread is that of Harriett and Maeve, two women who are linked through their friendship over the years as it waxes and wanes.

Harriett, really the protagonist of the book, is a young girl of eighteen at the start of the book. She falls in love with a boy just about to enlist in the army, and it’s a marriage his parents do not approve of. New husband Owen is killed just two months into the war, and it’s a loss that Harriett does not ever get over really. After leaving her husband at the station before he leaves for training and never to be seen again, Harriett runs into a young artist called Maeve and they make a fast friendship for one afternoon, living life with abandon (such a relief after the pressure of goodbye!)… The two new friends promise to meet up a few days later, but life gets in the way and they lose touch with each other.

It’s now World War II and Harriett is covering a night shift of fire-watching for her elderly neighbor. She ends up being on one of the roofs of the old Coventry Cathedral, watching for incendiaries and other bombs that the Germans would likely drop on the city as it was an important industrial center. In the course of the long night, Harriett ends up learning much about herself, reconnecting with a lost friend, and losing part of her
heart …

The majority of the novel is centered on this one night of endless relentless bombing of Coventry, and how Harriett and new (young) friend Jeremy end up sticking together to reach a shelter and family. This is really well done – the descriptions of the characters and how they react to the non-stop onslaught of bombs that rain down on top of them, how familiar buildings and streets are changed in an instant to an unrecognizable landscape, and how close death comes to them both. This is pretty intense, and if you read it at one sitting (as I did), it will completely suck you in with its details of life under continuous random fire. How do you know where it is safe?… You don’t. You just do your best. The writing also impresses on you, the reader, how your home/sanctuary can also turn into your grave through the unpredictability of outward forces (i.e. bombs in this case).

Such nerve-wracking conditions will, of course, affect the intensity of your relationships and Harriett and Jeremy, despite their age difference, end up being more than friends. However, will they both make it through the night, and will he ever find his mum to make sure she is safe?

As things progress and the two characters run all over Coventry trying to find safe harbor and his mother, Maeve (the friend from long ago in WWI London) is re-introduced to the story and has a parallel storyline to Harriett. The two threads are woven in and out of each other’s stories, and by the end of the novel, it’s all in one tapestry.

This book is also about memory, and how it can be the one constant in life at times. Both Harriett and Maeve end up losing a loved one, and this, perhaps, is the connection that they have to keep them in touch with each other over the years despite all the changes that occur as life progresses.

Humphreys has done a good job with this novel, making it exciting and unpredictable and yet quite literary at the same time. There were some great comparisons done in a subtle way: Coventry Cathedral was pretty much destroyed by the bombing, but the people of Coventry kept the wreckage and rebuilt the new cathedral to embrace the old architecture as a memorial. This intricate dance of old and new was quite frequent throughout the story: the elderly people who had lived through the first war, and the young who perhaps wouldn’t make it through the second, the destruction of old buildings and the emergence of new…

The story was also bookended in a way, with Humphreys describing a swallow both at the beginning and the end, using it as a metaphor to show transience, grace under pressure, continuity… A very nice touch.

Overall, a super read and I will be on the lookout for other Humphreys books. I think she will be good.

I remember visiting Coventry Cathedral in between breaks of a swimming match there (as the pool wasn’t too far away).  As is usually the case with adolescent tourist visits squeezed between races, I didn’t fully appreciate what the cathedral represented at the time, but I know if I ever return to Coventry, I will be heading straight there.  I can
only imagine the feelings of the people of Coventry when they learned that their 600 year old cathedral had been bombed… Something of such perceived impermanence destroyed in hours.  I bet that was a shock to the old system.

Here is the website for Coventry Cathedral if you’re interested in more info.

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