Monday, May 4, 2009
On the evenings of November 14th and 15th, 1940, a massive bombing raid destroyed the English city of Coventry. German attack planes flew over the city dropping hundreds of bombs, decimating most of the architecture and killing roughly 600 people and wounding many more. What was left standing was barely recognizable as a once flourishing and beautiful city. In the novel Coventry, Helen Humphreys weaves this tragic time in history into the story of three people who begin that fateful evening alone but somehow end up finding each other. Harriett, a young woman who lost her husband in the first World War, is quiet and unassuming. While she still misses her husband desperately, her emotions have been somewhat calloused and atrophied from the years spent alone. When she agrees to take over a shift on the local fire brigade, she gets more than she bargained for when the bombing causes massive fires to break out in her area of patrol. While she is simultaneously fighting the fire and eventually running from it's destruction, she meets Jeremy, a courageous young man who will be her guide and companion through the burning city. Jeremy is also part of the fire brigade, and after the bombing he and Harriett begin to search for his mother Maeve, the third player in this arresting drama. Maeve, an artist, has raised Jeremy alone and is caught in a pub when the bombing begins. When she makes her way home she wishes to stay there and wait for Jeremy but is persuaded by her neighbors to flee the city for the countryside, where it is safer. As the three players move closer to their reunion they witness terrible havoc and bloodshed throughout the once remarkable city. While they are busy dodging the falling bombs they each discover the hidden sides of themselves that they never expected to find, and become enmeshed with each other in astounding ways.
This is a slim book, but one of tremendous power. The author has a way of being very understated and subtle in her choice of words, but somehow this makes the narrative both more haunting and evocative. There were many things about the book that seemed subdued, from the way in which she portrayed her characters to the situations that she chose to illustrate, but there was something that was extremely poignant in the way that she juggled this huge amount of confusion in her story with restraint and quietness. Had she chosen to construct the narrative in a more hypersensitive way, I think the story would have been somewhat directionless and less focused.
Another thing that I appreciated about the book is that the author used the show and not tell method of storytelling. Instead of trying to explain all of her situations and characters and the reasons for their actions, I felt that she let the characters' actions and reactions speak for themselves. It was not hard to see why Harriett behaved as one wounded, or why Maeve was so headstrong. Their characters grew into these emotions as the book progressed, and instead of laying it all out there in a repetitious and elementary way, the author chose to close all those gaps with the growth of her characters and the emotive power of her situations.
As far as the characters go, I preferred Maeve's character to Harriet's because Harriet at times seemed a bit too detached for me, and her remoteness in the main portion of the book was something that I felt was a bit hard to relate to personally. Despite this, I felt that, as a character, Harriet displayed much more growth than the others did. It was illuminating to watch the shifts in her personality and to see her mentally become more cognizant of her emotions and behavior. The growth that Harriett evinced was one of the things I liked most about this character and this book. There was a type of internal monologue running through her that was both plausible and satisfying to witness.
Of the three characters highlighted in this book, Maeve was my favorite. She was very independent and spirited, and I liked the way that her love of drawing and art was infused into the very fiber of her character. I thought that she showed tremendous courage in raising her son alone. During that time period, I am sure hers was not the most popular or acceptable decision. Her love for her son was touching, but it was not an overpowering force in the story; instead it showcased the bond between the two characters in a tender and gentle way.
I also liked Jeremy. He was very young, but he seemed to show a mature and sound emotional capacity, and was endowed with many characteristics that are rare finds in the men of literature. I found him to be an extremely sensitive and compassionate person while still being somewhat of an innocent. Although he could have left Harriett behind to face the odds alone, he willingly took on her presence and agreed to guide her safely through the maelstrom towards safety.
There was a an interesting chemistry between these three players; they were all so very different, but in the end, they all manifested some of the same characteristics, albeit in different ways. Though the force of the war was huge, the force of their personalities were bigger, and that was something that elevated this from your typical war story.
I really enjoyed this book, and think it would be perfect for those who enjoy character driven novels. Whether or not you are a war enthusiast, this book will probably strike a cord in you because there is a great deal to focus on in the story. The characters and situations in the book feel authentic, and although this is a sad story, it is not permeated with bleakness throughout. If you enjoy books that focus on the people surrounding an event and their reactions towards that event, you might really enjoy this book. Recommended.