Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Coventry and The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys

Helen Humphreys is a Canadian poet and novelist who has an amazing eye for detail and for finding beauty in the mundane. I recently read two of her novels back-to-back and was grateful to have discovered such a lyrical writer whose World War II-set novels resonate with longing and loss.

Coventry mainly takes place on the night of November 14, 1940 when the English city of Coventry was nearly completely destroyed by German bombs. It follows the efforts of two women, Maeve and Harriet, to survive the bombing that devastated the city. There are periodic flashbacks to the First World War when Harriet lost her husband and Maeve conceived her son and how those experiences now impact how the women react to the current war and bombing.

The Lost Garden also takes place during World War II. Gwen Davis is 35, single and lonely. She is a gardener who works for the Royal Horticultural Society in London and is looking for an opportunity to leave the city she loves so she doesn’t have to witness its destruction by bombs. She gets that opportunity by joining the Women’s Land Army and going to Devon to plant potatoes on a neglected estate. Here she receives her first experiences with love and intense friendship, and ultimately, loss. Her discovery of a hidden, overgrown garden and the plants it contains is a perfect metaphor for her experiences and Humphreys’ descriptions of the gardens and flora on the estate match well with her descriptions of Gwen’s emotional landscape.

Both of these novels deal with love, but more intensely with loss and how people let it shape their lives.

As the author herself says “Every story is a story about death. But perhaps, if we are lucky, our story about death is also a story about love”.

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