Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat hosts a literature and war readalong each month. This month she selected the novel Coventry, by Helen Humphreys. For months I have been trying to track down her monthly selections so I can join her readalongs and finally I was successful. Please note that there are some spoilers below.
On November 14, 1940 Coventry is under attack. German planes fly overhead dropping one bomb after another. During this chaos, two women, Harriet and Maeve, are wandering the streets. The women met once before during World War I when Harriet asked Maeve for directions. Harriet was new to the city and she had just seen her husband off at the train station. He was on his way to fight in France in the First World War. Maeve and Harriet take an instant liking to each other and enjoy an exhilarating ride on a double-decker bus, which has recently been introduced in Britain. Once they arrive at Harriet’s flat, Maeve promises to return for a visit. However, things interfere and she is unable to. And since they didn’t exchange names, the women lose track of each other. Soon after this, Harriet learns that her husband is missing and presumed dead. He never returns from the war.
Back to November 14,1940, Harriet starts off the evening as a fire-watcher located at Coventry Cathedral. This is her first time filling this post and her fellow fire-watcher is Jeremy, Maeve’s son. Harriet does not know that the young man is the son of the woman she met years ago. Jeremy reminds Harriet of her husband and she is instantly drawn to him and feels the need to help and protect him. They soon come to the conclusion that they can’t remain at the cathedral due to the intense bombing by the Germans and Jeremy wants to find his mother. Harriet joins him in his quest.
Maeve is at a pub when the bombing starts. At first she hides in the shelter with the other pub patrons but she leaves to head home in hopes of finding Jeremy. She sets out on her own journey through the burning city.
I’m really torn about how I feel about this novel. Part of me really liked it and part of me felt that it could have been so much more. I sensed that the two women would eventually meet but when they did, the story ended too soon. They had such a strong connection in the beginning and if they met up sooner in the story I felt it would have enhanced the plot. I felt that this connection was the heart of the story and yet it wasn’t given enough time to develop.
At times I wondered if Maeve’s and Harriet’s reactions were true representations of how the citizens reacted that night. Sometimes I found Harriet’s blasé attitude frustrating. But then again I wasn’t there so maybe people were too stunned to react differently. I did enjoy how the two women kept recalling their own past and questioning the choices they made. However, at times their recollections seemed long and ill-timed. If bombs were falling all over and fires blazing would you take several minutes to run through your mind your major life decisions to decide to make a run for it?
Even though the execution of the story didn’t quite work for me, I really enjoyed the writing. And she had many great quotes about reading and books. Here’s a couple of samples.
“The good thing about books is that they remain themselves; what happens in their pages stays there. Harriet does not like the idea of the story bleeding through into real life. She trusts a story, and doesn’t trust real life. But what makes her trust a story is the knowledge that it will stay where it is, that she can visit it, but that there is no chance it will visit her.”
“Maybe reading was just a way to make Harriet feel less alone, to keep her company. When you read something you are stopped, the moment is stayed, you can sometimes be there more fully than you can in your real life.”
I’m curious to find out what others thought about the novel.