Monday, June 14, 2010

Monday Review: Helen Humphreys' Coventry

Coventry: A Novel

Reviewed by Kelly Hand

Helen Humphreys’ Coventry is as austere as the wartime city whose destruction it chronicles. It seems appropriate to call this slim book a novella, yet its style draws as much upon the short story tradition of creating characters without extraneous details as it does upon the expansiveness of novels. Yet Humphreys’ background as a poet is also evident in her scene-painting of a city transformed by German bombs, and she manages to weave history gracefully into her fictional narrative.
The primary focus in this story is Harriet, who moves to Coventry as a young bride during World War I only to lose her husband at the Battle of Ypres soon after. We encounter her first on the night in World War II that will haunt her forever, as she relives the pain of loving and losing. Having remained in the town as a widow for the decades between the wars, Harriet does an elderly neighbor the favor of taking over his “fire watching” duties atop the Coventry Cathedral, where men armed with buckets stand ready to protect the historic building in case German bombers bring flames down upon it. Harriet is willing to don this masculine disguise partly because she does not expect the catastrophe that occurs that night, but Humphreys suggests that her disregard for gender norms and her fearlessness contribute to her survival.

On the day in 1919 when Harriet sent her husband off to war, she encountered a young woman, Maeve, sketching the Coventry cathedral and felt an instant camaraderie with her. They talked about meeting the next day, but it never happened. During her fire-watching duty on November 14, 1940, she meets a young man named Jeremy. When the cathedral erupts into flames from a German bomb, they walk through the devastated city together. As they make their way into the countryside, encountering eerie scenes of life interrupted, Harriet and Jeremy develop an intimate bond that reopens the wounds of the past. Ironically, it is this emotional pain that reunites her with Maeve.

Offering us in its final pages a glimpse of the reconstructed and memorialized cathedral, Coventry suggests that the identities of people as well as places depend upon the bittersweet intermingling of past and present. After attending the 1962 reopening ceremony, Harriet sends a postcard to Maeve, who reflects upon the connection they share: “This is what she and Harriet do—pass the memory of that night in November 1940 back and forth between them.”

However, we have a vague sense that there is more to this relationship for Harriet than there is for Maeve. Humphreys’ failure to make sense of what this relationship means for Harriet is the book’s main weakness. One wonders about repressed homosexual desire, but then feels petty for coming to that conclusion. If Coventry were longer, and if Humphreys practiced less narrative restraint, it might be less elegant, but it would probably be a more satisfying read.

Kelly Hand grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Washington, D.C. She recently completed her first novel, Blind Girl's Bluff, a coming-of-age story about a homeschooled fifteen-year-old girl who discovers a passion for painting after her anarchist father suicide bombs a post office, leaving her orphaned and permanently blind. Having revised her novel with the help of a writing group formed with classmates from The Writer's Center, she contributes regularly to the group's collaborative blog, She has a B.A. in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Ph.D. in English literature from Indiana University.

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