It’s “[b]est to spend some of your moments here on earth noticing what else is here with you instead of concentrating solely on your own misery.” This clearly summarizes a lesson shared in The Evening Chorus. Set during WWII, Helen Humphreys gracefully writes about the endurance of the human spirit and the comfort and foundation that only the natural world around us can provide.
This is certainly not a war story. It is a story about people in war times and how they choose to survive and how they discover their true selves.
This novel speaks to the other side of war. How James, a POW, escapes his reality by studying a pair of Redstarts for 5 long years. In letters home to his wife Rose, he focuses on his observations of the birds, rather than his own circumstances believing this will ease her mind. To fill her days and feel connected Rose spends much of her time with her dog exploring the Ashdown Forest and the Heath. Reading James’ letters, filled only with a comprehensive detail of the Redstarts, Rose misinterprets his words and is left feeling he no longer cares for her and questions their marriage. Succumbing to her loneliness and loss she secretly becomes involved with a soldier stationed close by. In the midst of this affair Enid, James’ sister, asks to come and stay with Rose after her home was bombed during the London Blitz. Predictably, Enids arrival creates a great deal of tension. As Rose’s affair intensifies, she spends less and less time at home leaving Enid alone. To fill her time and heal from the tragedy she left behind in London, Enid spends the daylight hours wandering the forest, systematically cataloguing the flora and fauna in hopes she can write a natural history of the area.
This book’s plot is not about the battlefields of war focusing on blood, battles and the London Blitz. It is on the everyday hullabaloo caused by war and how people cope.
It brings us to a time where relationships are torn apart and lives are disrupted. Throughout the novel, as war disrupts their lives, each character looks to nature for escape and peace bringing the focus of reality outside oneself.
This resonated with me in particular based on my own personal experience when dealing with life changing circumstances beyond my control. I focused on the world around me and found comfort in nature. For the characters in The Evening Chorus, nature provides escape – “this is why James likes birds – because they are all possibility. They make a line in the air, the invisible line of their flight, and this line can join up with other lines or lead somewhere entirely new. All you have to do is believe that the line exists and learn how to follow it.”
There are three main characters – James, Rose and Enid - all likeable and relatable. They are the stars of the book, not the events. Each has their own baggage and do not always take the right path, leaving them to live with the consequences. They all have secrets and find it difficult to express their feelings. However, they all find peace, harmony and solace in their natural surroundings.
From start to finish these characters touch each other’s lives in ways that impact them forever. In the book, James and Rose are never physically together. They are only connected by an invisible line. It is Enid who actually crosses paths with the key characters. She visits Rose during the war at the same time Rose calls off her marriage to James. In 1950, after the war, Enid visits her brother, James, who is still grieving the loss of Rose and helps him see his future without her.
In the end, after choosing life over death, James sees “how he belongs to all of it – to the morning and the ducks, to the men who were in the cage with him during the war, to his sister, even to Rose when she was his bride and their life together was new and untried. He has a place in every one of them. He is carried forward by their lives, even though those lives are largely lived without him now.”
More on The Evening Chorus to come soon!
Grey County Reads is a county-wide reading program involving seven local libraries, including Grey Highlands, Hanover, Meaford, Owen Sound, Southgate, Town of Blue Mountains and West Grey. Five local celebrities advocate for five Canadian books.
Readers are encouraged to follow along with the contest, consider each book and it’s celebrity endorsement. Pick up your own copy of one or more of these books and give us your opinion too. Books are available in limited quantities from your local public library or may be purchased from your favourite local bookstore.
Read any or all of the Grey County Reads books and/or read each of the book synopses and celebrity installments posted on SouthGrey.ca.
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