I went into this book not knowing what to expect. I really just picked it up on a whim since it’s such a small book and I was curious to find out what it was all about. It’s the story of Maeve, who is a firewatcher on Coventry Cathedral the fateful night (November 14, 1940) when Coventry was bombed by German forces, leaving the Cathedral and most of the city in ruins.
Maeve lives alone, having lost her husband during the first World War. So when the Cathedral is hit, she flees with another young firewatcher, Jeremy, looking for shelter and then dodging debris, bombs and flaming rubble in search of Jeremy’s mother. The story is told from two perspectives – Maeve’s and Jeremy’s mother – and as each navigates the horror of waves and waves of bombs, we see what they see. We see families fleeing the city on foot with only the clothes on their backs and the few belongings they managed to salvage, we see pets and farm animals who have escaped and are either fleeing or hiding, we see buildings collapsed in on themselves or torn apart, and we see the injured, dying and dead. From this perspective the reality of destruction on this level is made much more tangible and shocking.
I thought this was a brilliant concept, and it definitely left me feeling like I’d experienced the war in a more immediate manner than any other book provided. But as much as the perspective was deeply affecting, the characters themselves fell somewhat flat for me. I wanted Jeremy to find his mother, but since the story wasn’t told from his perspective, we only got to know him through his interaction with Maeve. As for Maeve herself, I found it hard to connect to her. I felt sympathy for her isolation, but because she had already lost her husband in the last war and had no other family, she felt as if she were already shunted off to the edge of society, without much in the way of human connections. Which may very well have been the point, and the reason for her lack of warmth, but intentional or not, it made her feel aloof. In addition to this, she didn’t have a whole lot of personality. She seemed a bit blank and though she observed horrific sights, she seemed somewhat removed from them. I know that sometimes this is how shock works, and that it may very well be realistic, but in a fictional character it left little with which to connect.
I can’t say much more about the plot or the characters because to do so would give away the few twists. It’s a short book, and other than the ongoing onslaught of bombs, nothing much really happens. The characters we follow spend most of their time wandering around the streets looking for Jeremy’s mother, checking to see if their homes are left standing, and occasionally seeing people they know in passing. I’m glad I read it just for the historical context it provided, but as a story it didn’t really draw me in, and I didn’t feel like the characters meant much to me by the end of the book. I’d recommend it if you’re an avid reader of WWII-based fiction, but not if you’re looking for a story that will really bring the characters to life.
A stunning novel of love, loss and redemption, Coventry was published to rave reviews and became an instant bestseller in 2008. The Gazette (Montreal) called it “a small gem. . . . A beautifully sculpted, meticulously researched work.” The novel opens on the fateful evening of November 14, 1940, when from her post as a firewatcher on the roof of Coventry Cathedral, Harriet watches the waves of German bombers approach. As the city is consumed by firestorms, Harriet flees alongside a young firewatcher named Jeremy, in search of safety and Jeremy’s mother, Maeve. But Maeve has escaped to the countryside, and when she and Harriet finally unite, it is Jeremy they hope to find alive. Coventry captures the unspeakable pain of loss and the ways in which we remember those we love. – Goodreads
Book Title: Coventry
Author: Helen Humphreys
Published By: HarperCollins (first published 2008)
Released: August 4, 2009
Genre: Fiction, WWII
Date Read: June 14-16, 2017