“There is nothing natural about a human being,” admits Rose Hunter, one of three central characters in Helen Humphreys’ latest novel. Set in the wartime England of The Lost Garden (2002) and Coventry (2008), and replete with floral and faunal references, The Evening Chorus is a quietly commanding narrative of nature’s constancy in a time of unspeakable human ruin.
The novel begins in 1940, with the capture of James Hunter, a British officer and Rose’s new husband. To pass the idle hours in a German POW camp, James, formerly a science teacher, begins to study a pair of redstarts nesting just beyond the camp’s perimeter. His daily devotion to recording the birds’ behaviour attracts the attention of the camp’s kommandant, and their mutual appreciation for the natural world forms an unlikely and lasting bond between the two. Years later, James is back in England, the devastating effects of war having taken their toll on his marriage and health. He turns to his passion for birds as a source of comfort, continuity, and ultimately salvation.
Rose, left alone in her cottage, finds solace in the form of her two dogs, Harris and Clementine. The trio’s easy companionship and established routines lessen the hardships of war and the enduring pain of loss in its aftermath.
Even James’s sister, Enid, a devout urbanite, finds succour and redemption in the natural elements of country life after being bombed out of her London flat. After the war’s end, Enid returns home, but recognizes that she now depends on nature “to guide her in how she moves through the city, in how she thinks about her own life.”
In characteristically effortless prose, Humphreys relates a familiar tale of love and loss in war, but reveals a valuable truth: that nature in its timeless wisdom has the ability to remind humans, in the darkest of days, of their humanity.