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.”
In the beginning, James Hunter, a RAF pilot is shot down, captured by the Germans and imprisoned. By the middle of the first chapter it is evident that this is not a typical war story. “By the laws of the Geneva Convention, officers who are prisoners are not required to work, and this endless stretch of leisure time is hard on those who do not have a pursuit or passion to occupy them. For the men who seek activity, sport and gardening are favourites.
But escape is the most popular pastime.” James chose his escape the moment he heard the Redstarts sing. He chose to study them; voyeur through the Redstarts, who are free to live their lives as nature intended.
Before her affair Rose escapes boredom and loneliness tending her gardens and exploring the Ashdown Forest with her dog, her constant companion.
After the London Blitz and her secret affair becoming public, Enid leaves her job and flees London to hide out. She escapes to the country because “the forest is a very good place to hide out. Look how well it shelters all the animals that live on it.”
As the characters each explore their own ways to escape reality it is interesting that they each look to nature as their haven. Humankind is inextricably connected to nature. Nature teaches us, embraces us and nurtures us. Nature fuels our spirit. This theme is revealed again and again throughout the novel.
I felt this book was a worthwhile read. It was rich in content and beautifully written. I was captivated as I learned about and related to the characters and their circumstances.
I believe that this book was predominantly written for people who like historical fiction. With World War II as the back drop, it delves into relationships, family dynamics, love found, love lost ...of which none is predictable. It also shows the reader the powerful healing powers that nature provides humanity. The Evening Chorus shines with many moments of hope and courage, highlighting the durability of the human spirit.
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.
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