Both my mum's parents fought in the Second World War. My grandmother read radar screens for the British and my grandpa Hunter fixed radios for the Canadians. And yes, this was fighting, even if it didn't involve guns – they were both on the front lines, working on air bases that made desirable targets for enemy bombers. They met while on leave, corresponded, were married, and then, when the war was over, my grandmother emigrated to Canada like so many War Brides. With that kind of history, it is impossible not be enraptured by Coventry, Helen Humphrey's beautiful slip of a novel, but I think even without a family connection to the war you would be hard-pressed to put it down.
The novel is set, as the title suggests, in Coventry, a city in the West Midlands (north and west of London). Rather remarkably, the entire story takes place – aside from some memories – on one night: the night the Germans bombed the city on Nov. 14, 1940. When the novel opens, Harriet is heading to the Coventry Cathedral to work as a fire watcher. She is going on behalf of her neighbour, who fell when she mopped the foyer and hurt his leg. Don't worry, he tells her, nothing ever happens. Once she's at her post, though, it doesn't take long before fire starts to rim the city: Luftwaffe bombers targeting Coventry's automotive factories. But the bombing isn't confined to the factories, and soon firebombs are raining down on the city – lighting fires, Harriet is told, helps them see where else to bomb – and soon the cathedral is hit. When it becomes apparent they cannot put out the fires, the fire watchers evacuate the important items – chalice, cross, Bible, etc. – and then abandon the burning building.
Wondering where to go, Harriet pairs up with a young fire watcher named Jeremy – too colourblind for active service – who is new to the city and, despite not being sure how to get home, is determined to do so because his mother is there alone. Harriet, who has lived in Coventry since the beginning of the First World War, knows her way and agrees to help him find his way back. Initially, their priority is to find a a shelter and wait out the bombardment, but when it becomes clear it's going to last for a while, they take to the streets, avoiding the fires and staying away from the buildings that shiver with every new bomb.
Meanwhile, Jeremy's mother Maeve is in a panic about her son. She is in a pub when the air raid siren starts and heads down to the basement with the rest of the patrons. After a few hours of waiting, though, she gets restless and worried and decides to go home – just around the corner – to wait for Jeremy there. She can, she reasons, duck under her oak dining room table if there's danger.
As the night progresses, the novel moves between the perspectives of Maeve (Jeremy's mother) and Harriet, women who met at the very beginning of the first war, on the day Harriet saw her husband off for war. He died not long after at Ypres. Harriet's profound loss ripples through her sections of the novel, as Jeremy inevitably reminds her of her young husband Owen, giving her a kind of second chance to protect someone she loved, and to love again.
Coventry is a remarkable novel not only because of how fully realized its characters are in a relatively short space, but because of the way Humphreys has imagined the Coventry Blitz. The falling of buildings, the heat of the fires, the dead and injured people, the devastation of seeing places you know destroyed – it is all so vividly realized that a piece of history you may never have known about is suddenly perfectly and horribly real. I was taken aback by Coventry in the best way possible, and although it's quite short length-wise, it's as if the story has been distilled so that every moment is immediate and vital, which is way I would imagine that night really felt to the people who experienced it firsthand.
by Helen Humphreys
First published 2008 (cover image shown from Harper Perennial edition)