Literature and War Readalong – ‘Coventry’ by Helen Humphreys

Hello to all who are visiting from Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong – and welcome to my blog.  As I explained in my previous post, I have a personal connection to the story (Coventry, by Candian writer Helen Humphreys), so I was very interested in taking part this time.  Was it worth it?  Well, let’s find out…

*****
We begin on the night of the 14th of November, 1940, and Harriet, a woman in her mid-forties, has found herself on fire-watching duty on the roof of St. Michael’s, the Anglican cathedral in Coventry.  After a brief journey into the past, taking in the departure of Harriet’s husband for the front in the First World War (and his subsequent death), we return to the roof of the cathedral.  And, as any Coventrian knows, this was not a good evening to be gazing up at the night sky…

The 14th of November marked the climax of the Coventry Blitz, a series of air raids on the industrial city, and the first real attack by the German Luftwaffe on civilian targets.  Whereas earlier raids attempted to distinguish between military and civilian areas, Hitler had decided that this time the whole city was fair game.  What followed was the greatest aerial destruction the war had seen up to that point.

As Harriet and Jeremy, a young fellow fire watcher, escape from the roof and attempt to make their way through the rubble-strewn streets, briefly stopping to help out in air-raid shelters and bombed houses, the unlikely couple come to depend on each other more and more.  Little do they know that there is a lot more which connects them than this one fateful night …

Sadly, I would have to say that I wasn’t particularly impressed by Coventry.  There were some good points: the idea and setting; the descriptions of the bombing and the impassable streets; the scenes which had Harriet and Jeremy attempting to flee the city centre.  The scene centring on a man who decided to have a shave in the middle of the bombing was one which worked particularly well.

Overall though, I couldn’t help thinking that it was a very slight attempt at a story.  There were numerous, clumsy info dumps, particularly in setting up the back stories of Harriet and Maeve, another woman caught in the crossfire.  The romance between Harriet and Jeremy wasn’t particularly convincing, even in light of (or because of?) what was happening outside.

I also had a very strong feeling that the writer had no real connection to, or affinty with, the city being described.  The idea of using two women who didn’t come from Coventry seemed like a convenient way to avoid using any kind of identifiable dialect or accent, one which rather annoyed me as nobody really stood out in conversations.  Oh, and trust me on this – Coventry is not, I repeat, not in the north of England…

The ending though was beautiful and poignant, and I think the last couple of sections showed where Humphreys’ strength lies – in description.  Both the final scene in the cathedral, and the later scene of reflection on the night of the bombing are wonderfully done.  Unfortunately, the novel as a whole doesn’t measure up to the ending.

The great story of the night of the 14th of November, 1940, then has yet to be written (the classic Coventry story, of course, most definitely has…), and I’d like to see someone attempt it.  Coventry is along the right lines, but it is too slight, too sentimental and not focused enough on the city itself.  I would prefer to see a more substantial novel, building up slowly to the destruction of the cathedral, introducing us to real characters, using local language and painting a vivid picture of the city which was to suffer from the attack of the Luftwaffe.  That’s not too much to ask now, is it? 😉

For those who were more impressed with the book than I was, I found a link to Humphreys talking about her novel, in which she answers questions relating to how and why she wrote it.  I’m still not convinced, but it is interesting to see what she says about the book 🙂

*****

While the book isn’t all I would have wanted, don’t let that put you off visiting the location!  As you may know, the old cathedral was partially destroyed by the raid, a new building being constructed across from the ruins of the bombed church.  A common joke in Coventry is that what the Germans couldn’t destroy, 1950s city planners managed to finish off, an ironic reflection on the wind-swept concrete wasteland which replaced the bombed-out centre of the city. 

Luckily, Coventry is undergoing a transformation, and it’s a much nicer place to visit than used to be the case 🙂  While the new cathedral (especially the exterior) doesn’t agree with everyone, there is no doubt that the connection of the roofless ruin with the imposing new building is an impressive one.  I hope the book has made you curious enough to want to visit the cathedral one day…

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8 thoughts on “Literature and War Readalong – ‘Coventry’ by Helen Humphreys

  1. I'm sorry it wasn't what you expected.

    Out of curiosity, what's a typical expression from Coventry?

    It's strange to read a book about a place you know from infancy; I read one once and was luckier than you, there were local things in it that gave the right tone.

    Emma

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  2. Very interesting and thanks for that link. I was startled when I read the thing about Coventry being in the north. I thought she must have meant in the north of London or something equally silly.
    I think, we have come to very similar conclusions although for different reasons and with a different point of view. You felt it's not about Coventry, I felt it wasn't really about war.
    She is a stylist, I think, she does write very well, captures little scenes -like the man shaving – in a great way but that's not enough. For once, I would say, this book should have been longer and I hated the coincidence and that love story. Ok, he reminded her of her dead husband but really…. I didn't think it was realistic at all.
    Still, it's a book I might read again because I liked some of the elements a lot. Now off to that link. Thanks a lot for joining.
    I hope I can include a “proper” Coventry novel in a future readalong.

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  3. C.B. – Purely unintentional, believe me 😉

    Emma – When your city is featured in a book, I think you want your kind of book – this definitely wasn't that…

    I can't think of anything particular to Coventry, except for a few words which are fairly modern, but if you read Hardy or Eliot, you'll see attempts to render the accent. Even if that wasn't possible, a bit of informality would have been welcome…

    Caroline – Definitely a stylist, not sure she's a novelist… Maybe she'd be better doing short stories?

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  4. I agree with you that the last few pages were the best of the novel. I don't think she's a bad writer, in fact I found her writing beautiful at times. However, I don't think this subject or story showcased what she can do. There were several awkward scenes, such as the love scene, that just didn't flow. They felt more like filler to me. Maybe you are right, she should concentrate on short stories and not try to push her limits. I should say though, that I haven't read her other novels so maybe I shouldn't pass judgment just yet.

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  5. As another Coventrian, I had to agree with your views, Tony – the city did not have a strong sense of place – particularly the dry stone walls, which are not found in the Midlands! It is a pity the author did not visit the City. Funnily enough, I have recently read 'To say Nothing of the Dog', which although a humorous time travel book by an American, strangely seems more realistic about the Coventry blitz.

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  6. That's one I'll have to try. I'm not a big fan of sci-fi, but 'To Say Nothing of the Dog' does seem to be very popular. It would be interesting to compare it with 'Coventry', anyway 😉

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