Shane's Reviews > Coventry

Coventry by Helen Humphreys
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Aug 29, 10

liked it
Read from August 28 to 29, 2010

I visited Coventry Cathedral (the newer version) back in the ‘70’s on a trip to Oxford but never took much time to understand its fiery genesis. This book was a welcome filler-in of my information gaps from the perspective of the survivors of that inferno.

The lives of the two protagonists, Harriet and Maeve, intersect at critical points during World Wars I and II in the city of Coventry. At the dawn of WWI, Harriet and Maeve meet by happenstance and enjoy a double decker bus ride together, soon after the former has said goodbye to her recently married, 18-year old husband, Owen, who is heading off to the battle front in Belgium, never to return alive. The women forget to trade names or addresses on that first meeting and lose contact. During WWII, the two women meet again as refugees when the city of Coventry is under aerial bombardment; both are looking for the 22-year old Jeremy who has affected their lives in different ways, and who has gallantly gone off to save lives from the inferno. Outside of these two ghastly global conflicts, the two women’s lives seem unlived, but the crucible of war gives them definition and purpose. Their wartime experiences bind them inextricably, well into old age, and each in her own way begins to express and record the indelible images of war: Harriet as a writer and Maeve as a painter.

This is a very short novel, almost a novella, and the prose is simple and elegant. It is also an interior book as we see Coventry through the eyes of these two women, and much of the political machinations behind the bombing of that city are out of scope. That said, I found much of the back story, outside of the wartime events, being “told” to us: Maeve’s expulsion from her family when she gets pregnant, and Harriet’s wicked mother who is hell bent on burning everyone, are two examples; we even get a page of exposition on Maeve’s late marriage to Tom, another painter, just three pages from the end of the book.

The book woke me to the fact that much of the tragedy of history occurred, or was exacerbated by the technology (or lack of technology) of its time. For instance, if cell phones had been around at the time of the bombing of Coventry, finding Jeremy would not have been such a difficult thing for either of the women, and their lives (and Jeremy’s) may have taken a completely different direction. The book also woke me to the fact that so many hapless, silent, and stoic women of that period not only lost their husbands in one war, but they turned around to lose their sons in the next one – a truly persecuted generation. Humphreys pays tribute to this forgotten cohort with great sensitivity, without lapsing into sentimentality.

2 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Coventry.
Sign In »

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Alan (new)

Alan I live near Coventry and have been to see Mystery Plays set in the cathedral grounds. A beautiful place, and an appropriate modern monument both to the war and the old cathedral. You're right about the stoicism of the women of that particular generation, losing husbands in WW1, and sons in WW2.

back to top