The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

A fiction pick by Jean-Louis

evening chorus(HarperCollins, 2015)

In The Evening Chorus Helen Humphreys introduces us to James Hunter, an RAF pilot who has been shot down over Germany and  is now serving out the war in a POW camp. As an officer, James is not forced to work and neither are his fellow officers. How the officers spends their time falls into two categories: those who tunnel and spend their hours finding ways to attempt escape, and those like James who find ways to be productive while accepting their fate at the camp. Some prisoners choose to teach lessons or arrange musical performances–James chooses to observe and document the lives of a pair of redstarts who have nested just beyond the camp fence. Ultimately James will gather the information to write an entire book on the species of birds.

The themes of incarceration and pairing run throughout the book. Back in England is James’ young wife Rose who feels trapped as she waits for the war to end, for her husband to return, and for her life to get going again. Having only been married a short time before the outbreak of the war, Rose reflects that she doesn’t know James very well and that she may have married him more from a desire to escape the suffocation of life under her parents’ roof and less from love for James. A sudden passionate affair with another man throws her life into a full-blown existential panic. When Enid, James’ sister, comes to live with Rose after being bombed out in London, Rose is forced into some hard decisions which will affect all their lives in unexpected ways.

Humphreys has written about the second world war before in her novel Coventry and in this book she is again drawn to that great drama which so affected all of Europe in the last century. The book delves into the prisons that are thrust upon us by circumstance and those which we construct of our own volition.

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