The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys
Anyone who has read any novel – or novels – by Helen Humphreys will know how exciting it is to pick up a new book by this remarkable writer. Helen Humphreys will have spent years crafting her story and we will read it in a matter of only hours or days – every one of them filled with such pleasure. Her most recent novel, released a week ago, The Evening Chorus is no exception.
The Evening Chorus is set during, and shortly after, the Second World War. Most of the story takes place in England, in a rural village in Sussex. But, we begin in a prisoner of war camp in Germany where we meet James Hunter, a member of the British Air Force captured very early in the war. James spends the next five years in this camp, making a study of the birds – an occupation that saves his sanity and really his life. Bird watching requires patience - and time. For James, there is only roll call to interrupt his time watching the birds, as the years very slowly pass until the end of the war and his release.
James married Rose in the heady days at the beginning of the war – as many young couples did in order to have a few days of marital bliss before being separated – the men perhaps going to their deaths. James and Rose rented a small cottage close to her parent’s farm in the countryside near the Ashdown forest. Though Rose struggles with her relationship with her mother, Constance, a very difficult person whom Rose feels she can never please. As her father says “she’s never been very good at enjoying herself”. Rose lives here for the duration of the war, with her dog for company, working as a volunteer with the ARP, making sure the people in her village are obeying the blackout regulations. When James’ sister, Enid, loses her home in London to bombing she joins Rose in the cottage and these sisters-in-law, despite their very different personalities, find they are not really so very different after all and form a close bond.
James has not been long away when Rose realizes she married the wrong man. What does one do when this happens? Should Rose refuse the happiness that is brought by a new lover, life with a man so much more compatible, and so much in love with her – and she with him? The morality – or immorality - of having an affair while your husband is a prisoner of war is something I thought about a lot after reading this book. I had to remind myself that Rose was very young, and the man she loved was also leaving, perhaps never to return, although they made plans to be together after the war.
Rose is still young at the end of the novel – and she has not yet realized the true consequences of her choice. It is not that she should not have behaved as she did – but it was that she hurt James at a time when he needed her support so much. It is not that she should have spent her life with a man she did not love, but that she should perhaps have waited until he had something else in his life and might be less damaged by her desertion. Enid, much later, says, “She was young. You were far away. It’s the arithmetic of war”, thinking, “it is so hard to get life right”. Enid, herself, learns that one might find love in a place – with a person - you least imagine, and when you do there is nothing more beautiful.
The Evening Chorus is such a sensitive and compassionate novel about love and its beauty. It is also about the most profound loss, and the time that comes long after a loved one is gone when the essence of their presence can no longer be summoned - the natural, but sad, passage of time.
The Evening Chorus will make you cry – for the love you have lost in your life – for the love you might have longed for from a distant parent – for all that it is to be human and have a heart that can be both broken and full of love.