Historical fiction is a demanding art. Not only must historical novelists construct plots and fill them with characters compelling enough to keep people reading for a couple of hundred pages, they have the additional task of reconstructing worlds that actually existed. Kingston, Ontario writer Helen Humphreys succeeds on all fronts in her fifth novel, Coventry.
Coventry is a meticulous reconstruction of a British town on the night of November 14, 1940, when it was bombed to ruins by the German Luftwaffe. That night occupies a special place in British history, for not only was a major industrial centre full of motor vehicle and arms factories laid flat, so too was its famous Gothic cathedral, a blow of great symbolic significance to England and to the Allied troops. Coventry is an act of resurrection, an attempt to counter the destructiveness of war with the creative powers of art.
Humphreys has made a successful career of historical reconstruction. In 1997, she switched from writing poetry to prize-winning fiction with Leaving Earth, a novel set in 1931 in which two female aviators attempt to set a world record by circling Toronto for twenty-five days straight in a Moth biplane. Afterimage came next in 2000, with a main character inspired by pioneering British Victorian photographer Julia Cameron. And in 2002 The Lost Garden appeared, set during the London Blitz of 1941, but in the relatively peaceful countryside of Devon.
Coventry takes readers into the eye of the storm. As the novel opens, Harriet Marsh, who has not yet fully recovered from her husband’s death in the First World War, stands sentinel on the roof of Coventry Cathedral under a full moon as the German planes arrive. She is there by accident, replacing a neighbour, but this twist of fate completely alters her life’s course, forcing her to open her eyes and heart.
Told in spare, sensual prose, Coventry is a small book, in part because its plot unfolds on a single night, but also because that night was filled with so much noise and terror, people could barely think, let alone converse. Also, Humphreys employs the present tense throughout the book, which further cuts any chance of reflecting on events. Readers are pulled directly into the action alongside the characters, much like in a play. Our ears ring from the blasts of bombs. Our eyes water with grit and dust. We taste the acrid smoke.
In an afterword to the novel, Humphreys writes that she had been thinking about war, and specifically about the aerial bombardments in Iraq, when she decided to write Coventry. Her research consisted primarily of collecting first-person accounts of people caught on the ground. “Everyone will have lost someone or something tonight,” a character muses towards the end of the novel as the all-clear sounds. “Everyone will have to remake their lives.” Coventry is part of that reconstruction as well as a timely indictment of war.
Claire Rothman is a Montreal writer and translator. Her bestselling novel The Heart Specialist tells the story of a pioneering Montreal woman working in the field of cardiac anomalies.