On November 14, 1940, Coventry, a city in England’s West Midlands, was devastated by a German bombing raid that leveled two thirds of the city, including the city’s cathedral, which was built in the 14th century.
This event is the backdrop of Helen Humphrey’s 2008 novel, Coventry. The novel captures the horror and chaos of that night as seen through the eyes of Harriet Marsh, a 44-year-old woman who is acting as a fire-watcher on the cathedral rooftop and Maeve, an artist whose 22-year-old son, Jeremy, is also acting as a fire-watcher the evening the Germans dropped 500 tonnes of explosives on the city.
With the exception of a flashback to introduce us to Harriet’s husband, Owen, and to allow Harriet and Maeve to briefly meet, the novel spends its time during the ten-hour raid. Although it might be hard to imagine the scene, Humphreys does capture the horrible chaos of that night in simple, unembellished prose.
The bombing shakes the ground so that people fleeing through the streets stumble as though drunk. The trembling earth shifts them one way, and then the other, and Harriet finds herself reaching out to steady herself on walls that are no longer standing. She falls in the street, picks herself up from the shaking ground, and falls again.
Nearly 600 people were killed on that night; over 1000 more were injured. It’s perhaps not easy to imagine the chaos, but Humphreys does manage to capture it as Harriet and Jeremy make their way through the city to their respective homes. The horrors of war are all around them: people who have been fatally wounded, people buried under rubble, animals wandering aimlessly. Maeve leaves the shelter of the pub and heads home, but she and Jeremy miss each other.
The British were known for their stoic resilience during the Second World War. Some of that resilience is seen on display in Coventry. In one particular scene, Harriet and Jeremy happen upon a makeshift first aid station and while Jeremy jumps in to help, Harriet wanders off to see if she can’t rustle up some tea. C’mon! It doesn’t get any more British than that.
How did these people cope? They just did what they had to do and when it seemed like they couldn’t go on, they did that, too.
I am a fan of Helen Humphreys. I loved her novel The Lost Garden which I talked about here. I also really enjoyed Afterimage, which I read before I started this blog. What I admire about her writing is her ability to capture moments so perfectly. Perhaps that ability comes from having started her writing career as a poet. I just know that she is one of those rare writers who make you pause and nod your head in agreement.
Coventry is a short novel that, nevertheless, captures the horror and the unexpected beauty to be found amidst chaos.