Similar to her 2002 novel, The Lost Garden, Helen Humphreys’ sixth novel is concerned with finding one’s bearings in a world made unrecognizable by war. During the Second World War, on the night of the devastating Coventry blitz of November 14, 1940, widow Harriet Marsh finds herself navigating the streets of the town as German bombs explode around her. Alone, and still in mourning for the husband she lost in 1914, Harriet finds comfort amid chaos in the close companionship of a young man half her age, helping him search frantically through the burning streets for his mother.
Through her use of actual historical records of the bombing, Humphreys evokes the wartime atmosphere of fear and dislocation with great poignancy, but her novel also emphasizes – especially through Harriet’s stoicism and resourcefulness – the resilience of the common individual during times of exceptional challenge. Out of her grief and anguish over the losses she has sustained in both wars, Harriet discovers a strength of spirit and a long sought-after sense of purpose that allows her to selflessly tend to the needs of wounded strangers and risk her own life to ensure that mother and son are reunited.
Humphreys’ poetic language and imagery, though at times seemingly at odds with the narrative, frequently bring to vivid life the brutality and violence of that night in 1940. The repeated image of a ghostly white horse seen by Harriet and her companion during their search symbolically suggests the presence of peace and hope for the resurrection of Coventry.