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.
Beautiful post and I haven’t met before… Thank you dear TBM, I noted this one, with my love, nia
It is an interesting novel about this terrible night in Coventry. Thanks Nia.
This sounds like one I still want to read and I forgot to buy it last week. I will have to get onto Amazon I think!
It is worth a read. I really enjoyed the language. Some of the passages are just beautiful. And I learned some about the war. What a terrible event.
Have you read Sebastian Faulkes novel Birdsong? Very moving and quite interesting as seen from the man´s point of view.
I haven’t, but I’ll keep an eye out for a copy. Thanks for the tip!
You know how I felt about it, pretty much like you and Tony, what’s funny though, we all thought it was lacking something but we all felt it was something else. That’s interesting. You would have liked to read more about the friendship and now that I read this, I would say, yes, me too. I wouldn’t have had a problem with the coincidence if it had been the two women meeting and not Harriet and the son.
I thought, give the title, it would be more about Coventry and the war but that is not the case. Yes, the bombing is covered in great detail, we can imagine how horrible it mist have been but emotionally we are far away.
I will read this again, one day, I think, I will read it focussing on other parts, the parts I liked. There were many even though, as a whole, it’s very flawed.
Thank’s for joining and I hope there will be other titles you might like to read. 🙂
I had a hard time writing this review since I enjoyed it but I couldn’t really put my finger on how much I liked it. When I read your review, it made more sense. Her use of language does distance the reader from the actual events, which doesn’t work for me since this novel is about a horrible event in history. I don’t want to be far away from the event, I want to know more about it. But the whole thing just doesn’t come together. It had a lot of potential and fell short. However, it still kept my interest and it was a quick read. I’ll have to hop over to Tony’s blog later today or tomorrow and read his thoughts.
Since he is from Coventry, his disappointment is way bigger than ours.
I have read another of her novels and liked it and have started to wonder whether Coventry isn’t a book one would like more the second time. It’s so toned down, it’ s entirely possible, as I wrote, that I’m not doing it justice.
I’m curious to read her other novels. I really enjoyed her words. I enjoyed reading Tony’s insight into the novel. It is interesting that the three of us had different reasons why we didn’t like it.
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For a start, the book shouldn’t have been called ‘ Coventry’. That’s a big statement, and this book is nowhere near good enough to bear it out. I agree that the connection between the women was interesting, but it should have been strengthened by a few hundred pages of story beforehand. Either make it a pure sketch of the night or an extended novel building up to it – not a half-baked mix of the two…
I have to agree, Tony. It’s really the title that makes it more of a failure tha anything else. I’m still don’t even know why she wanted to tell this story?
That is an interesting question. I haven’t watched the interview yet so I don’t know if she offered any clues.
I agree Tony. Her execution of the story fell short of what I was expecting. I really would have enjoyed if she spent more time developing the plot before the bombing. I may have connected with the characters more.
I haven;t read this book, but it sounds interesting.
It is interesting and mostly I enjoyed it. If she had tweaked some aspects of the story I think it would have been much stronger.
Perhaps the author’s intention was just that to leave something out and give us the power to imagine. Just saying.
That could very well be the case…overall I enjoyed it. I just noticed some aspects that didn’t work for me, but I know many others have really enjoyed the novel. I would like to read more works by her.
Good quote at the end about books remaining themselves.
I really liked it and read it several times. It is a nice thought.
It’s the first time that I’ve heard of this book. I’ve always been intrigued by novels that speak about the war – in fact, we were contemplating on having that theme as well, but we’d probably postpone it for next year. Will pin this book cover so I’d be reminded to find it in the event that we push through with that theme sooner.
I’m excited to hear about your project next year. I studied European history and my concentration was on WWII. I enjoy novels and books on the war. It was such a fascinating time, in a sad and destructive way.