On one November night in 1940, the city of Coventry was to be changed forever by the bombs of the German Luftwaffe. The destruction was immense; what wasn’t destroyed by bombs was consumed by the fires that they set, including the city’s immense medieval cathedral. The bombs will also drastically change the lives of three people trapped in the destruction; Harriet, a widow since the first World War, Jeremy, a young firewatcher, and Maeve, Jeremy’s mother.
This was such a stunning book; it’s hard to describe just how much. It’s one of those that highlights the sudden and unexpected connections between people, the reactions of different people to catastrophic events, and somehow comes out recognizing the significance of such horror yet also showing how healing, with space and time, is possible. For some, the world goes back to the way it was, changed but still the same old world, while others’ lives end in a blaze of wanton destruction.
My husband lived in Coventry for a few years, and as a result I too have been there. I’ve seen plenty of documentaries about it, heard the stories of survivors, and even visited the old cathedral. It’s still a bombed out shell; there are still two charred beams that form a cross where the altar once was. I have even spent time thinking about what wonderful medieval architecture was lost due to the bombing; the city as it is now is mostly concrete and ugly and its original character, with which these characters would have been so familiar, is utterly lost. But in this book, none of that is important; it’s all about survival.
I think it was the character of Harriet who touched me the most, probably because her reactions are similar to what mine probably would be in a crisis. She really just wants to get out. She helps people when she sees them, but there’s always a tinge of reluctance to it, because she knows full well that she might die. Death was brought home to her when she lost her husband of just a few weeks in the first World War, so she’s all too aware of what her fate might be. She’s completely unlike Jeremy, who seems virtually unaware that he could die at any moment; he’s too young to realize how fragile life is. And Maeve, of course, is consumed with worry for her son; she’ll happily go back into the flames for him, while Harriet only does so because she knows it’s right.
The entire book really got across the feeling of what it must have been like to live through that night, as horrific as it was, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the page. It was compelling, breathtaking, and heartbreaking in turns. It’s an evocative depiction of the senselessness of war, while simultaneously demonstrating the strength that individual people have even when they don’t expect it. Coventry is highly recommended.
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