Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

You know how sometimes you pick up and read a book that is something special? How sometimes you find a book that is so stunningly gorgeous that you want everyone you know to read it? Sometimes the most unexpected books turn out to be this sort of book. Helen Humphreys' The Evening Chorus is one of these books.

It's 1940. James Hunter crashes over the English Channel, is picked up by the Germans, and taken to a POW camp. There he stays mostly aloof from camp life, neither participating in escape attempts nor developing close relationships with his fellow prisoners. Instead he spends his time close to the perimeter of the camp observing birds. He watches and makes notes on his redstarts every day, intending to write a book about them after the war. His observations are solitary but he has an ally in his study: the camp Kommandant, a former university professor. Thinking to spare his wife the monotony and occasional horror of life in a POW camp, all of James' letters home center on the impersonal: the birds which so consume him even as he holds his memory of her and their short life together unwritten but close to his heart.

At home alone in their small cottage on the edge of Ashdown Forest, James' young, new wife, Rose, is finding that her recollections of her husband, their brief courtship, and even briefer marriage are fading. What is more current for her in this war is what is closer to home. She makes rounds to ensure that everyone in the neighborhood is following proper blackout procedure. She takes rambles with Harris, the dog she got after James left to fight. She visits her parents across the forest despite her mother's constant ill-temper. Her life is generally uneventful and predictable, even if it's not the one she envisioned when she and James married. And then there's Toby, the RAF pilot with whom she's fallen in love.

When James' older sister Enid's London apartment is destroyed in a bombing raid, she loses everything, home, job, and lover, all in one random instant. There's nothing for it but for her to join Rose in the countryside while she tries to sort out what to do with her life. The two women know each other very little and despite the fact that they share the worry of husband and brother being imprisoned, they are each hiding their deeper, more intense suffering from the other.

Split into two sections ten years apart, the story of these three people and the lives they live is completely compelling and utterly engrossing. Humphreys is a masterful writer; her prose is quiet and simple yet devastating and perfect. The tone of the novel is meditative and understated and a haunting melancholy pervades much of the tale. She has captured the poetry of nature, detailing the exquisiteness of the creatures and plants that exist so often unnoticed and undisturbed around us, the things that only become obvious given the unhurried time and silence in which to observe them.  Humphreys' language flows over readers, immersing them in the gentle, subtle and nuanced world of the novel. It is one of those rare books that you only wish you could have read slower to give yourself longer to savor it.  It is about what it means to be constrained, to be a prisoner, and to be free, in ways that are often unexpected and unsuspected. But most of all it is an elegant novel about what it means to be human, to embrace life.  All I can really say is read it.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

1 comment:

  1. You had me sold by the end of your first paragraph. :-) I'll add this to my list now.


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