“Flight is not the astonishing thing. I have always thought that the miracle of birds is not that they fly, but that they touch down.”
When I read Helen Humphrey’s Frozen Thames – a gorgeous little book of vignettes; the stories behind the times in history when that great iconic river froze solid – I was utterly captivated. I certainly had the intention to read more of Helen Humphrey’s work but I suppose forgot all about it, until I saw a picture of The Evening Chorus on Twitter – and promptly pre-ordered a copy. I started it within days of its arrival – such was my anticipation – and I really wasn’t disappointed.
The novel is set in 1940 and 1950 – and explores with delicate, subtlety how lives and relationships were torn apart by the war.
James Hunter is a prisoner of war, held with other officers in a German Army camp. The officers are not required to work and so must find other ways of occupying themselves. Among James’s fellow prisoners are: The Reader, The Gambler, The Gardener and The Actor, James is The Birdman. For as the letters from James’s wife Rose become rarer, James has found something to take his mind far outside the brutal confines of the camp; a family of redstarts are nesting nearby, and James begins to make a daily, detailed study of them. While other men read endlessly, garden small plots outside the lice ridden huts, plan daring escapes or dig tunnels; James positions himself near the barbed wire fence faithfully watching and recording the progress of the redstart family. The camp Kommandant – surprises James twice – first with the gift of a German bird book – that James cannot read but treasures anyway – and then with a deeply touching trip (which fills James with terror at first) to see some Cedar waxwings.
“The Kommandant withdraws a cigarette from the case, clicks the silver box shut, and returns it to his coat pocket. He lights a match, cupping his hand around the flame. James notices that the older man’s hand is shaking slightly.
“what did you read at Oxford?” he asks.
“Classics. I teach at the University of Berlin. Like you, I am not a soldier.”
How odd, thinks James, that this war and the last have been fought by classics professors and birdwatchers, gardeners and watercolourists.
“Christoph. “The Kommandant extends his hand and James shakes it.
Still traumatised by seeing friends killed in front of him, reminding us starkly that this is no summer camp, James and his friends are moved to another camp, on foot, marching away from his redstarts. Here the reader leaves James, and the next section of the novel takes us to England. At first I was bereft, I didn’t want to leave James marching toward another camp – but my disappointment was short lived. This really is a wonderful novel, and so I was quickly captivated by Humphrey’s descriptions of English countryside and by the stories of Rose, Enid and Toby.
Rose, ten years her husband’s junior is living in a tiny cottage on the edge of the Ashdown forest in Sussex with her beloved lurcher Harris. James is becoming more and more remote, they hadn’t been married long when James went away and now all his letters are about the redstarts he watches outside the camp. Rose is a blackout warden, each night she walks through the nearby village looking out for transgressors.
“Although it is called the Ashdown Forest, there are actually no ash trees on it. In fact, there are hardly any trees at all, because Henry VIII cut them all down to build his navy. But there never were any ash trees. The land was named after a Frenchman who used to own it. The English couldn’t pronounce his name, and the bastardized version became Ash.
Rose never gets tired of being out in the forest, of the smoky smell of the bracken and the mist sheathing the hollows. She likes the quiet of it, and how she can strike across it for a whole day and not meet a single person.”
Rose is trying to make a life for herself in the isolation of the English countryside that she loves so much, but more and more she begins to feel it is a life that doesn’t include James, and now a couple of his letters lay unopened and unread – put aside to be forgotten about. Rose has begun an affair with Toby – usually meeting at the pub The Three Bells where Toby is staying – she has recently allowed him to cross the threshold of her cottage.
Enid; James’s sister has been bombed out of her home in London, losing far more in the traumatic events of that night than her sister-in-law at first realises. Though they barely know one another, Enid writes to Rose requesting a bed, shelter in her brother’s home, and Rose is unable to refuse – though she fears that she will be unable to hide her adultery from Enid. Enid is reserved, outspoken and judgemental – but Rose is used to difficult women, her mother living nearby is an awful, spiteful, bullying woman, who Enid is appalled by when she meets her.
Toby meanwhile is desperate that he and Rose should have a happy ending, but little realises what obstacles might stand in their way – such is the reality of war.
Ten years later and the world is a different place for all these characters – losses and regrets, bitter hurts and things not said, lives which need re-building set against the background of a country still healing itself. Helen Humphrey’s writing is really very lovely, her characters are people who aren’t quite perfect, but they are fully sympathetic and real and I loved them. There is a deep understanding and affection for the English countryside and the natural world here which I particularly loved, (I was sad the dog characters didn’t make it to the end of the novel – I mention this as I know people who like to know this in advance – although we don’t witness their demise.) Overall though The Evening Chorus is a stunning novel of hope and the natural world.