The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

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Reviewed by Danielle

Helen Humphreys writes some of the most lyrical prose I have come across. I’m slowly reading my way through her work, some of it read in pre-blogging days so I think it demands to be revisited now. Her novels tend be slender affairs, but slender can be misleading. A book small in stature and slight in heft doesn’t mean the story is in any way lacking. Her stories might be light on plotting but they are always rich in interior emotions and long on deeper meaning as long as the reader is patient and open to her style.

There is a compactness to her storytelling, and The Evening Chorus is just what I was expecting yet surprising in its way, too. It has her usual economy of style in terms of writing and storytelling with very little wasted, yet she manages to thread several different lives together very deftly and connect them in the end. What is remembered after that last page is turned is not the war but the beauty of the natural world which is what makes life so bearable for these damaged souls.

The Evening Chorus is a war story. While the first section of the book takes place in a POW camp, the horrors of war are mostly hinted at or take place off stage. Yet each character carries the scars of the war in his or her own way. And each character manages to find beauty in their world despite the losses and hardships.

James Hunter is not a man made for war. The idea of killing someone is so foreign to him that he decides to join the RAF so he can be removed from the actual physical action of combat and having to see who he is killing close up. It is actually a blessing when he is shot down over enemy territory and sent to a POW camp. As an officer he is even given certain privileges. The other POWs are mostly of his own class and education and each takes on a nickname reflecting the man’s personality, James becoming the Birdman. There is a nest of redwings in a tree just on the other side of the wire fence and with so much time on his hands he decides to make a study of them.

There is something staid and serious about James. He prefers to sit out the war and make the best of it with his studies, not sharing too much with the other men. Like what he feels for his wife Rose who he married somewhat impetuously just before he was called up. They’ve been apart longer than they’ve been together. His letters are filled with his observations of nature and birds and questions for Rose to look up and send back the information for. His seriousness perhaps belies his real emotion for her, but as a scientist he is not one to wear his heart on his sleeve.

One of their commonalities is an appreciation for nature and Rose is a countrywoman at heart. But maybe it was as much a desire to get out from under her demanding mother’s thumb as it was a feeling of love and attraction she had for James when she married him. Now she finds she has fallen in love with an airman stationed nearby who is waiting for orders to rejoin the war. She didn’t go looking for trouble, but it found her anyway. She fights a sense of loneliness in her small cottage once shared with James. Now she wonders if she ever really loved him. Her attraction to the airman is natural and comfortable and the two can talk endlessly about anything. She’s accepted the realization that she simply married the wrong man and feels no regret about her affair.

Everything becomes muddied and complicated when James’s sister Enid writes to ask to come stay when she is bombed out of her London apartment. She has nowhere else to go and Rose’s cottage is just close enough to London to make it the most practical of resolutions for someplace to stay temporarily. Enid is churlish and demanding and Rose resentful at having to hide her affair. But both women have more in common, secrets they carry inside, than either realizes.

Setting is so important in this story. It’s nature and the natural world that sometimes parallels, sometimes explains and sometimes contrasts the characters’ motives and actions, yet Humphreys manages this in the most delicate of ways. Everything is weighted–James’s redwings and Rose’s dog, Enid’s observations of the Ash forest where she comes to live. It wasn’t until after I’d finished reading and flipped back to look at the bits I marked and underlined that it all began coming together that it is the greater world and our place in it that helps give meaning to the ‘whys’ that befuddle our lives.

This is such a beautiful story and elegantly told. And it’s a hopeful story, too. Now that I know what happens I feel like going back to the beginning and starting all over again to see how Humphreys did it. I am sure it has been carefully constructed with each element placed just so even though it feels so effortless. That first impression of slightness, of bits of the story happening off stage is indeed misleading. There is nothing wasted or unintentional here even though she makes it all look so easy.

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Danielle blogs at A Work In Progress.

Helen Humphreys, The Evening Chorus (Serpent’s Tail: London, 2015). 978-1781253021, 224pp., hardback.

Currently out of print.