The Evening Chorus

The Evening Chorus

by Helen Humphreys


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The Evening Chorus serenades people brutally marked by war, yet enduring to live — and relish — the tiny pleasures of another day. With her trademark prose — exquisitely limpid — Humphreys convinces us of the birdlike strength of the powerless.” — Emma Donoghue

Downed during his first mission, James Hunter is taken captive as a German POW. To bide the time, he studies a nest of redstarts at the edge of camp. Some prisoners plot escape; some are shot. And then, one day, James is called to the Kommandant’s office.

Meanwhile, back home, James’s new wife, Rose, is on her own, free in a way she has never known. Then, James’s sister, Enid, loses everything during the Blitz and must seek shelter with Rose. In a cottage near Ashdown forest, the two women jealously guard secrets, but form a surprising friendship. Each of these characters will find unexpected freedom amid war’s privations and discover confinements that come with peace. The Evening Chorus is a beautiful, astonishing examination of love, loss, escape, and the ways in which the intrusions of the natural world can save us.

The Evening Chorus sparkles.” —Jo Baker

A poised, lyrical novel about the griefs of war, written with poetic intensity of observation.” —Helen Dunmore

“This riveting novel is a song. Listen.” —Richard Bausch


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544348691
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,211,532
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

HELEN HUMPHREYS’s novels include several New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Among other awards, she has received the Lambda Prize for fiction and was long-listed for the Dublin Impac. She has written four books of poetry, six novels, and two works of creative nonfiction. 

Read an Excerpt



James Hunter falls through morning.

He swings from his parachute harness as the plane drops below him, the broken shell of the bomber sinking into the Channel fog.

The water is as jarring as solid earth, and shockingly cold.

"Here! I'm over here!" yells Roberts, the pilot of the Wellington.

James fumbles to unclip himself from the parachute, then swims towards the pilot's voice and the shadow of the rubber dinghy bobbing in the swell. His bomber jacket and life vest allow only a stuttering breaststroke, and when he flips over on his back to rest for a moment, James notices that the vest has been ripped open above his heart. In the scramble from the cockpit, the canvas must have caught on a piece of sheared fuselage and torn.

He touches the edges of the incision gingerly, as though it were his own flesh that had been sliced open, and the white fluff inside the life preserver lifts into the air, a few strands of the kapok floss drifting slowly upwards, small brown seeds swinging from the fibres.

The shushing of the waves is suddenly interrupted by the whine of an engine.

James Hunter takes a deep breath, blows it out under the floss, and watches as the tiny parachutes rise up into the fog and disappear.

There's a moment when he's hopeful that it's a British ship, but after James blinks in the bright glare of the searchlight, he sees the shine of a black boot resting on the gunwale and above that a gloved hand holding a pistol.

"Hier!" yells the soldier at the bow of the boat to the soldiers in the stern. "Es gibt einen hier!"

The engine quits immediately, and the soldier with the pistol leans over the gunwale. He grins at his captive, floating in the early morning chop, and says, clearly and in English:

"For you, the war is over."

The communal shower in the delousing building reminds James of boarding school. He places his kit neatly in the cardboard box with his name on it, then walks into the showers cupping his genitals with the same protective modesty he displayed when he was twelve and forced to take swimming lessons in the brackish pond out back of the school library. The hot blast of water is a relief after the cold of the sea. His newly and hastily shaven head stings when the shower water hits it.

What started out as his six-man bomber crew has multiplied at the delousing facility into a hundred or so men, all of whom share the indignity of being captured within the same twenty-four-hour period.

Under the statutes of the Geneva Conventions, prisoners of war are allowed to wear their own uniforms. When the box with James's clothes is returned to him, his uniform is warm and smells like almonds.

"Cyanide," says the soldier next to him when he sees James sniffing his jacket like a dog. "They think it kills the lice and stops the typhus."

"The Jerries are more afraid of the louse than they are of us," mutters a man farther down the bench.

But the louse will torment all of them in the prison camp. It will be worse than the boredom, the filth, and the food. The small insect, only the size of a sesame seed, will live in the clothing of the men, crawling onto their bodies to feed and then returning to the clothing to rest. In James's bunkhouse, the frantic slapping and jerky movements of a prisoner trying to kill the lice while they're sucking his blood become known as "dancing the jig."

Once, James wakes up to the sounds of a man crying and sees Stevens sitting at the table in the centre of the room. He's naked, his back covered in red sores from louse bites.

"I can't do it," he says when James climbs down from his bunk. "I can't put it back on."

Stevens's uniform lies crumpled on the floor. It is so cold in the barracks that James can see his breath. He lights the candle inside the tin can on the table and picks up his bunkmate's jacket. With the same precision that would have been used to sew that jacket, he holds each seam over the flame, moving along the stitch just before the fabric catches fire. The swollen bodies of the lice make a small pop as they burst their cargo of blood above the candle.

The Oflag, set deep inside the newly drawn borders of Bavaria, was a barracks for Polish prisoners during the first war, and the large limestone buildings, already on the grounds, have been taken by the Germans for their quarters.

James can see the German quarters from the window that borders his top bunk. At first he monitors the activity around the buildings, watching the guards come and go, paying attention when the Kommandant steps out onto the wooden platform that has been constructed along the front of his office. But when it becomes clear that the war is going to continue for some time, and that James isn't getting out of the prison camp, he loses interest in observing the Germans and begins to monitor the buildings themselves.

When it rains, the limestone turns a darker grey. In a heavy rain, the outside of the buildings stays wet for ages and gives off the flat smell of clay, noticeable when the men are gathered on parade at the beginning and end of every day. James wonders if the damp of the stone extends all the way into the interior of the structure — if the stone is so porous as to conduct moisture through walls that appear to be over a foot thick.

The geologist in bunkhouse 2 has told him that limestone is formed from prehistoric marine life, from all the shells and dead sea creatures that collect at the bottom of the ocean and are compressed, over millions of years, into sedimentary rock. When James watches the barrack walls darken in the rain, he is reminded of the deep shade of the ocean, how it slopes off under the hull of a fishing boat. The darkness of the ocean always seemed empty to him, but now he thinks of the rock slowly forming along the seabed — a rock made of creatures that live in water. A rock essentially made from water.

With the exception of the squadron leader, whose rank still means something in the camp, most of the men have reverted to the identity they had before the war. The geologist was a lecturer at Oxford. The writer worked in an advertising agency. The actor was fairly well known in the West End. James was a grammar school science teacher. But gradually, with the days and weeks that accumulate, these prisoners of war start to become known for their roles within the camp. The geologist becomes the Gardener. The writer, good at cards and winning a large portion of the other men's monthly cigarette ration, becomes the Gambler. The actor, however, stays the Actor, setting up camp theatricals; he is busier than he was in civilian life, not only performing in the productions but directing and writing them as well, and helping to sew the costumes.

James, shot down on his first mission as an RAF pilot in training, doesn't mind losing a rank he hadn't even earned yet. For a while he is called the Teacher, but he soon loses this title to the label that best describes his activity in the camp — the Birdman.

The prisoners are housed in eighteen hastily constructed one-storey wooden bunkhouses, each holding fourteen rooms with eight men per room. Each of these rooms has a coal-burning stove, a table, and four bunk beds, one on each wall. Right now James has a desk because he has constructed one using a few of the slats that hold his mattress, but during these cold winter months, all available wood will be consigned to the stove, and James knows his desk will be the first thing to go. In the bunkhouse room beside his, the chair and table legs have already been burned and the remaining furniture jokingly suspended from the ceiling with string taken from around the Red Cross parcels.

The bunkhouses are made of pine, a soft wood that burns quickly, the rougher planks sometimes hissing with resin inside the stove, a sound very much like summer rain falling on hot, dry ground. The soft wood is easy to manipulate when floorboards need to be pried up for tunnels or mattress slats snapped for kindling. Because the wood is so roughly milled, the pine boards on the walls of the bunkhouse have a multitude of knots, and the prisoners work these out and use the space behind them to store small items that they don't want the guards or their fellow bunkmates to find — wedding rings, letters, the German-issued identity tags, which the prisoners don't wear but feel they can't lose or destroy. Some of the prisoners use their new identity tags as tools to cut bread and slice the canned meat rolls that arrive in the Red Cross parcels.

When James is bashing the circuit in the evening with Stevens and the Gardener, he doesn't look down at his feet as they walk around and around the perimeter of the camp. Instead he looks out, beyond the wire, to the sky and the forest. The pine trees grow closely together, barely any space between them. When a prisoner escapes he invariably heads into this dense forest, hoping to reach the other side, where there is a small town with a train station. If the escape has been a long time in the planning, the prisoner will have made a false identity with the help of the Artist, and he will hope to board the train as a passenger. If the escape is a sudden one, brought on by opportunity rather than plotting, then the prisoner will attempt to stow away on a freight train. After an escape, James can hear the barking of the Alsatian dogs as they are sent into the forest to find the prisoner; almost always, he is discovered crouching among the leaves or running towards town, and is back in camp within twenty-four hours.

At the edge of the forest is a fir tree surrounded by four birch trees, the white of the bark standing out among the green pines. The birches, encircling the fir, look like they have caught it, enclosing it in a sort of cage.

"It's just like us," said Stevens, when James first pointed it out to him.

Stevens circuit-bashes with James in the evenings, but otherwise he remains in his bunk, reading novels. In the air force he was a pilot. In civilian life he was a law student. In camp he is known as the Reader.

At first James looked at the fir tree trapped by the birches as Stevens did, but gradually he has come to see it differently. The fir has been forced to grow straight up as it looks for a way out of the trees that hold it captive. As a result, it is taller than the other pines, able to claim a larger quotient of sunlight. Also, the cage around it keeps it from being toppled by wind. And what if trees that grow so closely together have a relationship that is invisible to the human observer? What if they communicate through their root systems, through the exhalations from their leaves? James remembers his grandfather, who was a fisherman, telling him that the tallest, straightest pines were chosen as masts for the old brigs and barques because pine, even when dead, still has flexibility in it, will still move a little with the weight of wind in sails, and yet will also stand firm.

"The wind in the pines sounds exactly like the sea, like waves on the shingle," said a man who had escaped and been recaptured after spending the night lost in the forest.

As James moves around the camp at dusk, he also moves from thinking of the pine tree as a captive to thinking of it as the centre of a family, and in this way he recognizes that he himself has started to change, that he has begun to think of the prison camp not as home, but certainly as the place where he now lives.

ON THREE sides of the camp is a wire fence with wooden guard towers at each corner. The fence is twelve feet high and made of double-thick barbed wire. Fifteen inches inside the fence is a tripwire set a foot off the ground. Any prisoner who steps over this wire, even to retrieve a football, is shot.

Everything possible has been done by the Germans to deter prisoners from escaping. The bunkhouses are raised on wooden pilings, to discourage tunnelling. The guards in the towers are armed with machine guns and searchlights that sweep the compound in random patterns, so there is no predicting where the safe pockets of darkness will fall if someone dares to make a run for it. At night the guards are doubled and unleash their Alsatian dogs, which race around the compound, sniffing out any hidden escapees.

Prisoners are locked inside the bunkhouses until morning roll call, which happens at sunrise, when all two thousand men are roused from their bunks to stand in the muddy yard that separates the bunkhouses from the more spacious quarters of the Germans. The men stand in a long line facing the Kommandant, who remains on the verandah of his office during the procedure, strutting up and down, his chest puffed out like a winter robin's. In the evening after supper, there is another roll call.

By the laws of the Geneva Conventions, officers who are prisoners are not required to work, and this endless stretch of leisure time is hard on those who do not have a pursuit or passion to occupy them. For the men who seek activity, sport and gardening are favourites.

But escape is the most popular pastime.

From the moment he arrived at the Oflag, James was given the information he needed to escape, the arithmetic of the camp.

It is three hundred feet from the corner of the closest bunkhouse to the wire, and another thirty feet outside the wire to the ditch. The ditch is ten feet across. Beyond the ditch is the forest, beyond the forest the road, beyond the road the town. If a man were able to dig a foot an hour, undetected, during the available daylight hours between roll calls, it would still take three months to get outside the wire.

James has no desire to escape. He doesn't think it's an accident that the nearest bunkhouse to the wire is still three hundred feet from it. The Germans have also done the arithmetic, and they have calculated that three months is just long enough for them to discover any tunnel under construction.

It occurs to James that perhaps the Germans want the prisoners to attempt escape, that this little game of cat and mouse keeps both sides interested and occupied during the months of mind-numbing boredom in the prison camp.

Prisoners who tunnel are called "moles" because they work like those animals, digging with their hands to fashion a tunnel barely wider than their own bodies, using their hands as flippers to push the freshly dug earth behind them, where it is gathered up by other prisoners. What to do with the soil remains the biggest problem in escape attempts, as the newly dug earth is not the same colour or texture as the pale sand that covers the surface of the camp. It cannot simply be blended in. A certain amount can be distributed in the gardens, but the rest has to be hidden in the rafters of the bunkhouses or under the floorboards. Often the discovery of the soil leads to the discovery of a tunnel.

Moling is suited to the smaller men. But even if he were shorter and slighter, James would have no interest in tunnelling. For one thing, he has decided that the Germans are simply playing with the prisoners, that they know all about the digging and wait until a tunnel is just a foot from the wire fence before exposing it. And for another thing, James has suddenly become interested in remaining inside the prison camp.

The fourth side of the prison camp is a river. Across the river there is an old stone wall, and before the river there is a tripwire and a fence topped with barbed wire. Unlike the barren landscape of the camp proper, the river offers vegetation, some trees, and a little grass. The slight slope from the camp to the river makes it a pleasant spot to linger in the warmer months and a good place to go for those seeking some respite from the constant society of their fellow prisoners.

James Hunter was captured in the winter of 1940. When the season turns and spring has started to show itself, James comes down to the river at every opportunity. He stops bashing the circuit when he realizes that he has spent weeks walking the perimeter of the camp and the ground is now as grooved as a furrow from a succession of footsteps endlessly tamping down the earth. Now, in the evenings before the prisoners are locked in their barracks for the night, James comes instead to the fence near the river and stands under one of the three trees on the bank, watching the water roll slowly downstream, towards the town that he knows is there but will probably never see.

The river is perhaps ten feet across, the water tea coloured and not over a man's head. In the middle of the day, when the sun is directly above, James can see the rocks and sand on the bottom of the river, all of it murky through the sepia filter of the water's hue.

The volume of the river changes with the season. With spring it has widened, and all the rocks that protruded above the surface in winter are swallowed by the increase in volume. When the river flows deep and wide it is largely silent. When James first arrived at the camp, the river was barely a foot deep and it rattled with its own emptiness.

It is a fast-moving river. James has watched a leaf, blown onto the surface of the water, drift downstream and disappear around the bend before he has counted to thirty, the leaf moving at roughly one foot per second. The current is swifter in the spring, when the river is deep, the flex of the water more powerful.


Excerpted from "The Evening Chorus"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Helen Humphreys.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
Wild Horse,
Marsh Gentian,
Arctic Tern,
Cedar Waxwing,
Author's Note,
About the Author,

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The Evening Chorus 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
The Evening Chorus by widely acclaimed author, Helen Humphreys is a poignant drama about the lives of three people during World War II. First, there is James, a pilot captured by the Germans who languishes in a POW camp. His wife of six months, Rose, is left alone in their small country cottage. And James' sister Enid whose affair with a married man ended when her home in London was bombed and he was killed. She fled to Rose's cottage to avoid the scandal.  What makes this novel so poignant, so unique, is the simplicity with which it is written. The prose flows invisibly, making it impossible not to fall completely and utterly into the story. The tale is steeped in symbolism. James becomes fixated on a family of birds across the barbed wire fences, their freedom, and their movements providing a distraction from the horrors of the POW camp and making his life as a prisoner productive. Then there is Rose and he clings to her in his memory, a thread of hope for his survival. But Rose feels the isolation of being alone and she has fallen in love with another army pilot, their affair secret to everyone. Enid too has secrets of her own and the days she spends with Rose are filled with mystery and discord.  Hauntingly beautiful, and highly thought provoking, this book is an excellent choice for book clubs. It is an outstanding piece of women's fiction by a widely praised author. I highly recommend this novel. Beautiful on every page!