Helen Humphrey's new novel, Coventry, begins as the fire-watchers stand guard on the roof of old Coventry Cathedral on the night of November 14, 1940. One of the watchers is Harriet Marsh, a woman in her forties whose husband died at Ypres in the First World War. From the marvelously evocative first scene on the cathedral roof, the narrative returns to the day in 1914 when Harriet's husband left for the war. On the way home from seeing her husband off at the station, Harriet walks past the cathedral, where she meets another young woman, Maeve, who is sketching the cathedral spire:
Harriet looks at the detail on the church spire, detail she has never noticed herself. Each piece of stone has been drawn by Maeve as either shadow or light. Her talent fills Harriet with wonder and admiration. The church looks more alive in the drawing than in reality.Although more momentous events will follow, including the destruction of Coventry, this is for me the defining moment in the novel. Like Maeve, Helen Humphreys is able to bring her story alive with a few well-placed strokes, through the interplay of shadow and light. Like Harriet, Humphreys reflects on the ability of art to bring things alive, to focus our attention on the small things we've never noticed, to transmute history and loss into things we can live with.
Humphreys manages skillfully and poetically to combine reflection with a fast-paced narrative of the horrors of the night of November 14, when a German bombing raid reduced Coventry to ruins. It's a novel about ruins—the ruins of Ypres after the first war, the ruins of Coventry in the second—and about how those ruins are incorporated into the life that comes after. Coventry Cathedral is itself the most powerful symbol of this: the ruins of the medieval cathedral are incorporated into the new cathedral, ruin and redemption side by side.
On Good Friday 2007, I sat in Coventry Cathedral and listened to the choir—my wife in the alto section—sing Herbert Howells' stunning motet "Take Him, Earth, For Cherishing." The text, from the 4th century, begins:
Take him, earth, for cherishing,The motet was originally written for the memorial service of President John F. Kennedy, but its deep feeling comes from Howells' personal grief after the death of his son. Personal and public grief are movingly interfused in the piece, and that deep feeling filled Coventry Cathedral on Good Friday—the sense that we are part of each other's loss, and part of each other's hope of redemption. We mourn, and we carry on together.
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.
Once was this a spirit's dwelling,
by the breath of God created...
In her acknowledgments, Humphreys notes that her "descriptions of the burning city are based on the accounts of the citizens of Coventry, as well as on eyewitness accounts of the bombing of Baghdad." In one sense, Coventry resonates with contemporary events, particularly 9/11, and the intense blending of public and private grief and horror those events have brought about. Since 9/11, there seems to have been an increase in post-apocalyptic narratives like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Coventry takes us through an apocalypse, but ultimately it isn't about the horror of destruction, but about the power of creation. It's about what we remember, and about what we build from those pieces.
Note: I received my complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.