The Evening Chorus*, by Helen Humphreys, is a quiet gem of a book. Ms. Humphreys is an accomplished Canadian poet and novelist, and I honestly can’t believe that this is the first book of hers I’m reading. It won’t be the last.
The Evening Chorus follows three people: James Hunter, a British pilot confined to a German prisoner-of-war camp when the book opens; his new and young wife Rose, living in their cottage at the edge of Ashdown Forest; and Enid, James’s sister, who comes to stay with Rose after her London flat is destroyed in the bombing of the city. James’s story is the frame and the touchstone (which honestly makes the book’s US cover annoying, too generic and too specific all at once; the Canadian cover is a better representation of the book).
The novel follows James, Rose, and Enid in turn, though of course they’re all connected, not only by their family ties, but by their appreciation of the natural world. James passes his days in the camp by taking up the study of a family of birds, while Rose learns to love her walks as an air raid warden with only the company of her dog. And Enid, brought low by loss, finds solace in undertaking a study of the heath and forest near Rose’s cottage.
Ms. Humphreys’s writing makes me want to use words like “limpid” and “spare” and “lyrical.” Her language is clear, building images and characters deftly and with a supreme sense of balance. When revelations appear, as they must in a story, they’re not shocking twists, but rather forks in a path that you haven’t noticed being built beneath your feet.
Here’s one passage that I particularly liked:
The minutiae of Ashdown Forest are more interesting than she first assumed. Every little flower has a history and cultural references , is a superstition or a cure for something. Everything in its own world, and if Enid stays there, in these worlds, she won’t have to break the surface of the large, terrifying world she actually lives in (150).
It’s the same impulse that leads her brother to study his family of redstarts, though the realities of imprisonment are naturally less avoidable than Enid’s realities are for her. I appreciated the details of the POW camp that Ms. Humphreys provides, the portraits of the men passing time and fighting boredom, cold, and filth by finding their own projects: gardening, bird-watching, escaping. While life in a place governed by the Geneva Conventions—even marginally—is nothing at all like the horrors of the death camps, it is frightening, and the men deal with it in their own ways. James’s redstarts are a way for him to make sense of his new world, because he is there, as another prisoner puts it, “for the duration.”
And making sense of the world, in all its cruelty and its flashes of beauty, is the subject of The Evening Chorus. James, Rose, and Enid, with their different paths and personalities, live and grieve through the lens of the natural world, even when they feel removed from it, and from each other.
This is a beautiful, affecting novel, and I highly recommend it.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.