by Helen Humphreys
Norton, March 2009, $23.95 cloth, 177 pages
Sweet, tender, short and not a word awry. And one of the best anti-war novels I’ve ever read. Just what we need, right now, as we’re settling into to Obama’s “next 100 days,” with none of the wars ended and another one emerging in Pakistan. Coventry reminds us what it means to live (work, marry, love, eat, sleep, die and survive) under a rain of bombs.
Coventry, for those of you whose WW II history is no better than mine, an industrial city in central England, was the subject of one of the most infamous bombing raids of that war. The terror and destruction were used, in turn, to justify Allied bombings of urban areas – people’s homes – in Germany. Based on accounts of survivors of that brutal night and on eyewitness accounts of the bombing of Baghdad, it offers an immediate and very current reminder that war begets war, and that bombing, however rationalized, begets terror and death and destruction and, inevitably, more bombs. Something that the survivors of bombings know, instinctively, and something that most Americans, despite 9/11, have yet to understand. Send this book to your Congressman/woman and Senator.
But read it first, for the story. If Sarah Waters, in The Night Watch, asked what happened to those fine, brave women (lesbians in that case) who spent the War risking their lives to save others’ lives, In Coventry Humphreys is asking about that spark of connection between women – named or not – that sees them/us through.
Humphreys has explored this war before, in her lovely The Lost Garden. Her most recent novel, Wild Dogs, BTWOF’s 2005 Novel of the Year, asks some of the most interesting questions about (lesbian) relationships – about love and work, and about commitment, freedom and passion as it applies to both – of any book I’ve ever read. Humphreys doesn’t believe in easy answers. So I took the liberty of reading her new novel as an exploration of that spark between women that might, in another time or place, evolve into something differently intimate. Or might not. It’s a covenant that’s rarely named and even more rarely honored. Humphreys has given us that gift with Coventry.
Perhaps, if we had a word for these relationships, they would more often and more fully honored? Coventry? As in “I had coventry with her.”
Coventry was also remembered as the home of Lady Godiva, who rode naked through the town in effort to persuade her husband not to tax the townspeople so heavily, back around 1050. A daring woman if ever there was one.
Also just published:
In January Delacorte (Random House/USA), published Humphrey’s short stories, The Frozen Thames, which was published in Canada in 2007. I’m saving them as bribes to get myself to spend time on the exercycle at the gym. (Hey, it worked with Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy and Jumpha Lahiri Unaccustomed Earth!)