by Helen Humphreys
It strikes me as the work of a very talented author to make a war novel dull. I admit that this is, perhaps, a more combative tone than I should be starting with, but I honestly feel that this was at least partly intentional by the author. The Evening Chorus starts us off in a German POW camp during the second World War, getting to know the prisoners as they while away the time waiting for the war to end. It even strikes me as a fairly cozy place to be trapped for years, for the most part, though Humphreys tries to describe some degree of hardship and cruelty that seems almost laughable next to a true war chronicle like Elie Wiesel’s Night (says the middle-class, white male from modern North America). This issue, almost paradoxically, arises due to the author’s talent: Humphreys effectively humanizes the vast majority of the characters, making it very difficult to portray anyone as monstrous.
And this is the source of most of my praise for The Evening Chorus: the description of the characters and their relationships. The story is about attempting to move on after going through difficult times. (I almost want to say, “redemption,” though that would be wrong; none of the characters strike me as being saved in their journey, and, even if there was any truth to the word in this context, I would still go to lengths to avoid a descriptor used by every blurb writer on the dust jacket.) While working to survive the long years in the aforementioned German camp, James’ morale is shattered when a letter comes from his young wife, Rose, asking for a divorce. Meanwhile, James’ sister, Enid, having lost everything in a London bombing, moves in with Rose at an untimely period, when Rose’s passionate affair happens to be in full swing. Humphreys explores how catastrophe pushes people together and apart, thoughtfully constructing characters who react realistically to hardship and betrayal.
The Evening Chorus is one of those difficult recommendations. It’s definitely far from terrible, with good parts that are verging on spectacular, but it’s just a bit disappointing, given how much I loved Humphreys’ previous book, Nocturne, and my high expectations going into this one. You could definitely do worse than reading The Evening Chorus, but you could probably do a lot better. (You could, for example, read Nocturne.)