Two exceptional novels from one magnificent writer
The past year has been a good one for Helen Humphreys. Last fall with the publication of The Frozen Thames and this fall with a new novel Coventry – both superb. The Frozen Thames is about the River Thames and the years during which it has frozen – most often a rare occurrence and one that will no longer happen since “the destruction of the old London Bridge and the building, in 1831, of the new one.”
The new bridge allows the river to flow much more rapidly through its arches, and the river has been dredged, “deepening the channel and strengthening the ebb and flow of the tides.”
Helen Humphreys has written a piece of prose – a small literary gem - for each year that the river froze. The first, in 1142, is the voice of Matilda, Queen of England, barricaded inside a castle in Oxford, who attempts to escape on the frozen river – we are left to wonder (or to look in our history books) if she succeeds.
Each year we have a different narrator who is experiencing the novelty of the frozen river, and trying to survive the bitter cold. Each vignette is open-ended, we know only a few hours of their lives. The man and his reluctant oxen, the men who ferry people in boats and now on ice, the lovers who meet during the Plague years. As the years progress, there are the reigning kings and queens, and those who are about to be beheaded. There are the frozen birds, the Frost Fairs when the merchants set up booths on the ice, and the citizens come to drink and eat and to wonder at the great river, a solid highway of frozen ice. This book is a necklace of precious gems strung along the history of the Thames. One to be dipped into slowly by the patient reader or swallowed all at once by the greedy.
Coventry is another exceptional book – it is one of the most moving and beautifully written books I have ever read. The novel is set in the city of Coventry, briefly in 1914 and 1919, but mostly in 1940 during the bombing of the city and of the cathedral. We meet Harriet in 1914, newly-married, as her very young husband goes off to war in Europe. On that day she meets Maeve outside the cathedral. There is an immediate attraction and the two women spend the day together, both just beginning their adult lives.
We leap forward to 1940, we learn what has happened in Harriet’s life in the intervening years, and we see her on the roof of the cathedral as part of a fire watch.
I cannot describe to you how beautifully this book is written – each word and sentence as perfect as it can be. The descriptions of the bombing of the city, of the people whose lives are suddenly changed forever, the streets and the homes destroyed. As Harriet and Jeremy, a young man she met on the cathedral roof, make their way through the streets the scene is brought to life – the sights and smells are as vivid as life.
Harriet thinks, “who would have imagined that the attack would bring down Coventry…It is always the thing you can’t imagine that is your downfall…because the thing you can’t imagine happening is the thing you can’t ever guard against.”
As Harriet rushes past the library, the books are burning and she thinks of all of the books she has read, the books that made her “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 actual life.” A bomb falls nearby and stops her thought.
The people of Coventry pour into the countryside hoping to escape the night long bombardment – families are separated, knowing not if their loved ones have escaped or have been crushed under falling buildings.
Maeve has only recently returned to Coventry and finds herself first in a bomb shelter under the pub where she had spent the evening, and then joins the exodus from the city, before returning to her home.
We learn also of Maeve’s life in the years between the wars, a child born out of wedlock, her various lovers and occupations. A life she does not regret.
And now Maeve wonders if she and her child will survive the night. The weather that autumn had been glorious as Maeve settled into her new home. She thinks now of the sounds and activities of everyday life, the ordinary moments, so precious now that they have been destroyed.
The book concludes in 1962 with Harriet and Maeve meeting for a service in the new Coventry cathedral. Anyone who has visited Coventry will know the cathedral. The shell of the cathedral that was destroyed is still there – one can sit peacefully within its magnificent walls. I was there in the early 1970s and spent a quiet time in this very spiritual place with my young child. My husband was studying in England with Patrick Reyntiens, a stained glass artist who worked on the windows in the new cathedral. In the novel Harriet thinks, “the blue in it is a colour so deep it seems to have drifted up from the bottom of the ocean to roost there, on the wall of this church. Coventry blue.”
The reader is not left wondering what happened to these women after that awful night. We find them, together, mourning all that they have lost as they carry on with their lives, resilient.