During the Battle of Britain, Coventry was the only English city to lose its cathedral in the German bombings. Canadian poet and novelist Humphreys (A Jealous Ghost) here relates how that tragic event affected the lives of her three protagonists. Middle-aged and widowed Harriet Marsh stands in for a friend as a fire warden on the cathedral's roof that fateful night of November 14, 1940, as the planes of the Luftwaffe head for Coventry to destroy its industrial establishment and much of the rest of the city. There she encounters Jeremy Fisher, the young son of a woman she met years ago after the outbreak of the Great War, in which Harriet lost her husband. Jeremy's artist mom, Maeve, spends the evening wandering around the besieged city hoping to find her son. Humphreys's account is presented with a poet's attention to detail and le mot juste, but she spares us none of the horrors of war. A slight but compelling volume recommended for academic and public libraries.
The underappreciated Humphreys (Wild Dogs, 2005, etc.) offers a journey through the dark night of the soul that was the November 14, 1940, bombing of Coventry. Middle-aged Harriet is serving as firewatcher on the roof of Coventry Cathedral when the German bombers arrive. The church in flames, Harriet finds herself wandering the burning city with another firewatcher, a young man named Jeremy who recently moved to Coventry for its wartime jobs with his mother Maeve. Harriet, whose husband died at Ypres only months after their marriage in 1914, does not realize that Maeve is the same young woman with whom she shared her first ride on a doubledecker bus the day she saw her husband off to war. The women felt a bond but remained nameless strangers. Since then Harriet has stayed in Coventry as a solitary widow, while Maeve, who never married, has led a mildly nomadic life with Jeremy as her emotional center. When the bombs fall, Maeve is in a pub. She soon leaves the safety of her shelter to return home and wait for Jeremy. Meanwhile, Jeremy and Harriet encounter scenes both horrific and surreal-dead bodies of children, a burning river of melted butter. They find Harriet's house destroyed. By the time they reach Maeve and Jeremy's house, Maeve has already been pulled into the exodus out of the city. The note she's left behind for Jeremy gets lost in the kitchen debris. Harriet and Jeremy find a moment of respite in the house and despite their age differences make brief, exhausted love. Before Jeremy returns to the streets, he lends Maeve's coat to Harriet. Joining the exodus, Harriet runs across Maeve, who recognizes her coat, and they unite to look for Jeremy. By the time they learn Jeremy'sfate, they have recalled their first meeting and formed a new, lasting bond. With stark, precise poetry, Humphreys builds a palpable, almost unbearable sense of inevitability and loss that echoes both John Hersey's Hiroshima and Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach.