On November 14th, 1940 the city of Coventry in England suffered through horrific bombings from the German Air Force. Coventry was a big industrial area and its manufacturing included munitions. On that night 515 bombers were set from Germany to destroy Coventry’s factories. By the end of this blitz two thirds of the area’s factories were either destroyed or severely damaged, public utilities were out of commission, 2 hospitals had been destroyed, Coventry Cathedral was a ruin, over 4,000 homes were gone , approximately 1,100 people were hurt and an estimated 600 people were killed.
Set on that same awful night, Coventry by Helen Humphreys follows three people during the bombing: Jeremy a young man who has recently moved to Coventry to find a job in one of the war related factories, his mother, Maeve and Harriet. Maeve is a devoted mother and artist who has spent her life going from job to job in an effort to keep herself and her fatherless son afloat. Harriet is a long time widow. Her husband died in the first few weeks of fighting in WW1. Even twenty years after that loss she has been unable to find happiness in life.
Fate brings Harriet and Jeremy together as firewatchers on the 14th. They spend a night together that is appalling and fantastic. In between the horrific damages, the devastating loss of life and the constant attempt at rescuing, Harriet realizes that she has a connection with Jeremy and his mother. When the bombing starts Maeve heads home to wait for Jeremy’s return. Before that happens she gets caught up in the exodus out of the city. When the night is finally over the lives of all three of the main characters will be forever altered and forever connected.
This huge story is told by Helen Humphreys with a minimum of muss or fuss. Her writing is spare and direct but not in a bullet point, journalist style. Rather Humphreys calm, matter of fact prose juxtaposes the horror of the events in Coventry with her very ordinary characters who are living through it in a way that leaves the reader transfixed.