I must confess, I am a great fan of Helen Humphreys’ novels. Coventry, an extremely vivid and moving book, just strengthens this partiality. The German bombing raid on the night of November 14, 1940 virtually destroyed the city. I knew this, but it was only when I read this novel that I felt the impact of what it was actually like during the bombing. Helen is fire-watching on the roof of the cathedral for the first time, standing in for her neighbor, who has fallen and hurt himself. When the destruction begins, she joins another fire-watcher, a young man named Jeremy, in a desperate effort to make their way back to their own homes, which turn out to be close to one another. Jeremy wants to make sure that his mother, Maeve, is all right, and Helen wants to check on her home and her neighbor.
While most of the action takes place during the night of the bombing, we also are provided with glimpses into Helen’s life before and after 1940. She married in September 1914, and her brief period of utter happiness ends with her new husband’s departure to fight in WWI. We see her, also in 1914, unexpectedly delighting in a ride on the top of a new double-decker bus with another young woman she has just met. These earlier snapshots help us to better understand Helen at the time of the inferno.
This edition of the book includes an interview with the author, a brief essay about the writing of the book, and a resource list. I found these supplementary materials valuable, and particularly enjoyed finding out why the book took the shape that it did. Helen Humphreys began her writing career as a poet. She has brought the perceptive vision of a poet to this elegiac and compassionate novel.