ROCKED BY WAR, A TRIO TRY TO GROUND THEMSELVES IN NATURE
Helen Humphreys revisits World War II and England in her new novel, The Evening Chorus, territory she has explored before in 2002’s The Lost Garden and 2008’s Coventry.
Captured when his plane is shot down, British officer James Hunter becomes a prisoner of war in a German camp. Determined to adapt to his new life and lacking any sort of activity (officers aren’t required to work), the former science teacher decides to to occupy himself by studying a pair of redstarts. It occurs to James that making the best of his predicament is the ideal way to proceed; while his fellow prisoners torture themselves by allowing their thoughts to fly home toward family and friends; he will better survive by allowing his to soar over the perimeter of the prison fence to the small birds building a nest there.That is not to say he doesn’t think of his wife, Rose. He pens her careful letters about the redstarts’ efforts, thinking of the time they spent on their honeymoon, roaming about in nature and how they bonded over the experience. He believes the letters will remind Rose of that time, and leaving out any mention of hardship will save her grief.
Back home, Rose is almost giddy with James’s absence. She’s gotten a dog to keep her company and relishes her independence, doing night rounds as a warden. All the routines she and James established in their fleeting time together as a married couple have fallen by the wayside and Rose lives according to the natural rhythm of the days, eating when she’s hungry, sleeping when she’s tired, often on the floor of the sitting room of the little cottage she and James shared, curled up by her dog. She’s even found someone else to occupy her time. But her easy existence is threatened when James’s sister, Enid, writes, asking if she can come to stay.
Enid’s flat in London was destroyed in a bombing raid — and it seems more than that was shattered by the blast. Enid has lost her path in life and feels out of place when she moves in with Rose. The two women clash, angered and frightened by secrets they feel they simply cannot reveal to each other.
I have long been a big fan of Humphreys’ writing — her ability to convey so much emotion in such an understated way. There are shards of violence thrust here and there throughout this book, brief and all the more stark and harsh for that briefness. But the real emotion comes from the portrayal of what the characters must endure day in and day out, alleviated only by tiny moments of joy and pleasure and the way the heart soars at such times.
What might have happened to Rose and James, if James hadn’t been pushed out of his nest of a home? If he weren’t swept out into a foreign territory like a vagrant bird swept off course into foreign territory? And Enid? Like James, she finds solace in nature. As does Rose, with her love of dogs and her inclination to a way of life that isn’t tied to clocks and schedules. Nature serves to connect and and tie each of the characters to the ground, to secure and keep them from floating away from the lives that are theirs.
I don’t know how Humphreys does what she does, but it’s magic, a soft, subtle seduction of words and storytelling, seemingly simple and straightforward, that wraps and winds its way around you, ensnaring you in an web of emotion before you even realise what’s happened. Melancholy pervades her books. Humphreys once said that the common theme in them is loss and that is certainly true of this one. There’s also hope, though, and love. And so, a depiction of life that is, I think, at the end authentic and the reason why Humphreys numbers among my favourites.