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Helen Humphreys’s seventh novel, The Evening Chorus, begins in 1940 with a British prisoner in a German war camp. The prisoner, James, sets himself the task of conducting a “real study” of a pair of redstarts—small birds—that he can see outside the gates of the camp. James reports tangentially on some prisoners’ attempts to escape and other’s coping mechanisms—reading novels, constructing a miniature village, building a golf course in the camp. All worthy activities that, like the redstarts, provide men with a worthy distraction from the grim realities of daily life. The redstarts consume James. He watches them nest, lay eggs, and nurture their young.
For James, the redstarts prompt a brief, but stress-inducing interaction with the Kommandant, the German head of the prison camp; they also provide the basis of James’s letters to his wife Rose. The two married just before James left for war after a brief but bittersweet courtship. Rose, alone in the English countryside in a rented cottage, has concerns other than James’s birds. She has fallen in love with another lad in town who is himself on his way to the war. Meanwhile James’s sister, Enid, comes to live with Rose after her lover—a married man—died when her London flat was bombed.
While the twists and turns of the plot engage, The Evening Chorus is not about what happens to James, Rose, and Enid. Their lives unfold as all of our lives do: some interesting twists, brushes with fate, but mostly daily mundanities. Nor is the power of The Evening Chorus the well-drawn characters, though Humphrey expertly renders characters with extraordinary emotional complexity. The power of The Evening Chorus is accumulation: a plot that unfolds at a comfortable pace, characters that feel usual, even ordinary, and thus interesting in their familiarity, and exquisite sentences. Humphreys is an extraordinary prose stylist. Together these elements yield profound yet subtle insights into the human condition that gather slowly, deliberately, as the novel unfolds.
Amid a novel deeply committed to precise observations of the natural work, humans emerge with occasional dazzling insights into themselves. For instance, Enid reflects, “Forgetting takes practice…You have to work at it,” and later, “It’s so hard to get life right, she thinks, pulling the blanket tight around her shoulders. All the small balances are impossible to strike most of the time. And then there are the larger choices. It’s hopeless.” Humphreys earns Enid’s statement of despair after pages of the accretion of desolation from characters and landscape.
The natural world—the English countryside, the isolated German prison camp—is almost an additional character. For James, Rose, and Enid, the natural world calls them back repeatedly from human despair to the sublime. Ten years after her weeks with Rose in the countryside, Enid realizes that her time in the country “changed the way she saw the world. All those days of walking the heath, collecting her specimens, reinforced in her a need to look at the natural world for her own location. Now, even in London, she is constantly searching out the trees and grass, the flowers, to determine her position in the urban landscape. She looks to the natural world to guide her in how she moves through the city, in how she thinks about her own life.” Through redstarts, dogs, or the heath, Humphreys reminds us of the fragility and desperation of the human experience but also of our relentless need to connect with it.
I marveled at ever sentence of The Evening Chorus. The novel is deeply moving. Humphreys renders distressing psychological spaces for her characters, but their stories brought me solace. Yet, it was not until the final third of the book that I understood why this book important to Lambda Literary—and to LGBT readers.
Of course, LGBT readers will appreciate this book for its fine literary qualities. The Evening Chorus is a contemporary novel that will satisfy quietly serious readers of literary fiction, including LGBT readers. There is an aesthetic quality to The Evening Chorus that I recognize in other lesbian and gay literature—a willingness to examine the despair we encounter in life, a willingness to consider the modes of survival we engage as humans in the face of horrendous conditions, and a sense that the internal lives that we lead are different and difficult to manage. Think Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Sarah Schulman’s People in Trouble, Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Yet, are these somewhat intangible characteristics alone enough to make these books of interest to LGBT literature? Do we want beautiful novels that obliquely grapple with LGBT people, experiences, and perspectives? Or do we want novels that put our lives front and center? This debate has raged for years and will continue. Humphrey’s The Evening Chorus raised the issue, tangentially. For the first two-thirds of the book, I wondered, what makes this book lesbian, LGBT, queer? Then a lesbian character steps onto the stage. A brief engagement, but one that emerges organically in interesting and provocative ways, inviting the question: what constitutes a lesbian novel? One character? A small subplot? Of course Humphreys was a finalist for the Lambda Literary award in Lesbian Fiction for her book, Wild Dogs. Perhaps that is enough to credentialize her work for LGBT readers? I will not offer an answer in this on-going conversation. Rather, I will simply say: I delighted living in the world Humphreys created in The Evening Chorus. Maybe you will too.
The Evening Chorus
By Helen Humphreys
Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Paperback, 9780544348691, 208 pp.