Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

A true story inspired Helen Humphreys to write The Evening Chorus. British officer John Buxton studied the birds he could see while imprisoned in a German camp during the second world war and then published a book about them. Humphreys spoke about Buxton when she was touring her previous book, Nocturne, and that is how I came to read his monograph The Redstart.

I always look forward to a new work by Humphreys, who is one of my very favourite writers. The Evening Chorus is exactly as I expected: quiet, thoughtful, poetic and powerful. Perfect. I wept. I don't want to start another book yet, so that I can spend time thinking about this one. Just as Buxton observed the redstarts, Humphreys has made a study of the human heart.

The Evening Chorus begins in 1940. While James is in prison in Germany, his younger wife Rose falls in love with another man. Then James' sister Enid is bombed out of her home in London and comes to stay with Rose.

It is much later that Enid discovers words of wisdom she might have shared with Rose:

   "You can love different people over the course of a lifetime, but you won't love any two of them the same way, and quite frankly, you will love some of them more than others. A great deal more."

James and Enid observe seabirds on a cliff in Wales in 1950:
Gannets in New Zealand

  "It's so hard to get life right, she thinks, pulling the blanket tight around her shoulders. All the small balances are impossible to strike most of the time. And then there are the larger choices. It's hopeless. She might as well be one of those shearwaters, tossed about by the gusts of wind that drive up from the Atlantic.
   Two shearwaters circle their heads and then slide sideways on a current of air, disappearing over the edge of the cliff.
   'Look,' James says. 'The shearwaters that fly on course and the ones that get thrown about by the wind mostly end up in the same place, so perhaps effort doesn't matter, isn't what ensures survival.'"

Within the bleak paucity of post-war Britain, Humphreys treats her broken characters with careful tenderness. Each has their own path to healing. There is that greatest of emotions, love, and there are also the small things. The things that build resilience and sustain us are often small. Simple acts of human kindness. Companionship. The natural world. Sometimes hope is quite literally the thing with wings.

Humphreys' 2008 novel Coventry is an excellent companion to The Evening Chorus. 

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