THE EVENING CHORUS by Helen Humphreys (HarperCollins), 289 pages, $28.99 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Helen Humphreys knows how to balance passion and melancholy. She perfected that complex tone in Nocturne, a tribute to her dead brother, and now she adds nature's inspiration to that mix in her exceptional follow-up book.
Set during and just after the second world war, the novel reveals its impacts - some traumatic, some less so - on five characters. British soldier James is a prisoner of war who distracts himself by studying two redstart birds nesting just outside the internment camp fence. Reluctant camp commandant Christoph, a classics scholar, encourages him even as his guards are casually murdering prisoners.
Back home in his village, Rose, James's wife of barely six months, has started an affair with Toby that is briefly interrupted by the arrival of James's sister Enid, who's been bombed out of her London home and devastated by the experience.
Humphreys delicately ties the characters' stories together through their connection to the natural world. James feels it strongly, Rose senses it through her trusty dogs, and it creeps up on Enid in ways that amaze her. Each chapter is headed by the name of a living creature that inspires a particular moment.
As usual, Humphreys displays a strong sense of place: the forest just beyond the camp, the heath outside Rose's drafty cottage. She's also interested in the way war toys with women's dreams: giving them jobs they're destined to lose post-war, forcing them into family situations they'd hoped to escape by marrying men who were sent to fight thousands of miles away.
But it's the emotional pull of The Evening Chorus (the title refers to birdsong) that makes it so powerful. That tug comes as much from the mood as from the story itself. There's always a thread of longing in a Humphreys novel.
This is one of her best.