When I come across a novel with horrific subject matter, I check out the novelist; is he or she also a poet? Warranted or not, that linkage is a source of worry. Much as I love the poetic sensibility in fiction, the capacity of language to aestheticize violence can be irritating. Novels are driven by good characters, but set against an historical backdrop, it becomes too easy to sentimentalize human fate, misusing metaphor’s power to connect all things as a way of conferring “redemptive meaning” on the carnage that characters experience or witness (Too bad about the war, but it made for a helluva novel).
I’ve always enjoyed Helen Humphreys’ delicate prose, but I approached her novel Coventry with these caveats in mind. So it’s reassuring to know that in this case, the reader’s in good hands with a poet and a novelist whose use of language is never clouded by sentiment. Humphreys writes with honesty and care about one of the twentieth century’s many grievous crimes — the German destruction of the British industrial city of Coventry during the Second World War, killing over five hundred people and burning its 14th-century Gothic cathedral to the ground.
Humphreys narrates through the voices of two characters: Harriet, a woman who lost her young husband Owen in the First World War, and Maeve, an artist who met Harriet on the day she saw Owen off to battle. Their carefree afternoon together was their last contact; their lives parted until that fateful night in November, 1940 when Coventry was bombed. That single event occupies the present time of the novel, which moves in memory from the cathedral (where Harriet and young Jeremy are fire-watchers as the attack begins) to Harriet’s life with Owen and her brief connection with Maeve; returning to Harriet and Jeremy as they make their way through the devastated city, helping some of the injured, searching for Jeremy’s mother. As readers we feel a poignant depth of connection between the lives of these three people (along with the desperation of their search for safety). Yet we know more; we see facets of their relationship that remain hidden from the characters themselves, and it’s this tension between what the reader knows and the characters can’t see that drives the novel forward to its sorrowful conclusion.
There’s an epilogue that brings the story into the 1960s; Harriet’s a writer and Maeve’s an artist, and living at a distance from each other, they use poetry and drawing to communicate about a terrible night that has changed their lives forever. This is not about art “redeeming” a nightmare. It is about art as memory and how it dignifies the passage of time. In Humphreys’ words: “Every act is an act of mourning…Every moment is about leaving the previous moment behind.” Maeve uses her artist’s gifts to hold on to what she has lost. Yet “the night still makes no sense, no matter how hard Maeve looks at it, no matter what pictures she is able to pull from the wreckage.”
The attack on Coventry and all the atrocities that have followed in our time will never make sense, and that is the great truth spoken by this small but penetrating work. What brings hope to these characters — without conferring “meaning” — is compassion and friendship in the wake of tragedy. Harriet and Maeve — and their creator — embody this truth in a beautiful work of fiction.
Coventry by Helen Humphreys was published in Toronto by Harper Collins Publishers Ltd. in 2008 (175pp).