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Pickle Me This

August 10, 2008

Coventry by Helen Humphreys

Helen Humphreys, as I learned when I read her book The Frozen Thames last year, does the most remarkable things with diminutiveness. Her scenes are microcosmic, and this is the case again with her new novel Coventry. Which is, of course, a small novel, the tale of a single night in a single place, but stretching over half a century as well. The story of Britons braving the infamous air attacks on the city of Coventry during the night of November 14, 1940, but then as Humphreys writes in her acknowledgments, “My descriptions of the city are based on the accounts of the citizens of Coventry, as well as on eyewitness accounts of the bombing of Baghdad.” And so it resonates.

Coventry is the story of Harriet Marsh who, by way of a wet floor and a twisted knee, has come to be working on fire watch at Coventry’s cathedral during that fateful night. The attacks far worse than anyone had predicted, and the fires erupting are no match for those standing watch, armed with their hoses and buckets. As chaos ensues throughout the city, Harriet finds herself staying close to Jeremy, the young man she’d been working with earlier in the evening. Dodging explosions, trying to help the wounded, attempting to find their way home, struck by the strange sights around them– the white horse feeding on grass in a city park.

Humphreys’ prose is the point here, spare but evocative with the most solid details. The blackened houses “burnt to nothing but their frames” but with the cats in the windows: “Cats stay with the building, thinks Harriet. Dogs go with the people.” The difficult in comprehending the sights they would see that night, let alone explaining them: “The bombs feel to Harriet like all these things– an earthquake shaking the ground, lightening striking the earth, the deep sonorous toll of a bell./ When something is unnatural, there is no new language for it. The words to describe it must be borrowed words, from the old language of natural things.”

This novel is a rumination on human connections, on love and happiness. Happiness to be seized onto, gripped, even in these terrible times, for these unfortunate people who’d lived through one war and now found themselves in another. And not a stupid joy, not a stupor, but something more pure, something that could be held in one’s memory as the bombs fell around them, tearing their entire lives apart, thus enabling survival. The novel referencing other works of literature as well, bookishness in general. Beatrix Potter’s Jeremy Fisher, “… the awful moment when he realizes his life is not what he thought. He has been operating in the world as a predator and now he understands that he really is prey.”

Coventry is a small book with a great deal of power, comprising images beautiful and so ugly, joyousness and the depths of sadness, of there and here, and now and then, but none of this is juxtaposition. These forces’ opposition ceasing to matter when each is ever present, and so such is complexity, this piece of the world.

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