A Quiet Novel with Remarkable Sweep

The Evening Chorus: A Novel, by Helen Humphreys, (Mariner Books), 304 pages, release date February 3, 2015

The Evening Chorus opens in 1940 with the capture of a British Air Force officer who is held in a German prisoner of war camp. James Hunter, the officer, spends his years as a prisoner carefully studying birds he can observe from inside the camp.

In many ways, Helen Humphreys’ novel is like one of those birds studied by James Hunter: subtle, without flash, but with a beauty and wealth of details that become increasingly clear the more time one spends with it. And, like a bird, it soars.

Besides James, the novel follows the lives of Rose, his wife of a few months, who finds herself in love with another man, and Enid, James’ sister forced to move to the country to live with Rose after her London apartment building is destroyed in the Blitz. These characters lead very separate lives, yet Humphreys pulls their stories together in a satisfying whole that is wonderfully rich, despite the novel’s seeming simplicity.

In their different ways, James, Rose, and Enid spend much of their lives living with a tightly focused sense of purpose that is intended to hide the frustrations of their own lack of options. They live life as they do in order to keep themselves from seeing the lives they are leading.

Humphreys is an exquisite prose stylist. Her sentences are beautifully, yet straightforwardly, constructed; her precise word choice conveys nuance effectively. She shows us how much an author can accomplish with fully realized characters, even when their lives appear simple.

It’s early in the year, but I expect The Evening Chorus will be on my “Best of 2015” list. Read it—let yourself sink into its quiet as its richness unspools before you. If you find yourself hungry for more of Humphreys’ work once you’ve finished The Evening Chorus, I can recommend her collection of interlocking stories, The Frozen Thames, as a satisfying follow-up.

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