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'Coventry' an intriguing World War II tale

"COVENTRY," by Helen Humphreys, W.W. Norton & Company, 194 pages, $13.95 (reprint)

On the night of Nov. 14, 1940, German forces attacked the city of Coventry in the United Kingdom. In a matter of hours, 568 people were killed and most of the city center was destroyed, including the city's medieval cathedral.

It is on this night that author Helen Humphreys bases her novel "Coventry," which follows events of the blitz from beginning to end.

"Coventry" opens in 1914. Harriet, an 18-year-old newlywed, has just seen her husband off to war. She loses her way when returning home and runs into a free-spirited woman who sparks her imagination.

The two never expect to meet again, but fate, it seems, has other plans.

Fast-forward 25 years, and Harriet is now a widow. She has agreed to take over her neighbor's fire-watching duties atop Coventry Cathedral. There's never been a problem, he says, assuring her the night will be uneventful.

On the roof, Harriet meets Jeremy, a young man who easily discerns Harriet is out of place. The two are together when Germans planes start dropping incendiaries on the roof of the cathedral.

Unable to stop the structure from burning, the pair can only watch in horror as the building goes up in flames. It seems the whole world is on fire, and in fact, a large chunk of Coventry is.

But the incendiaries are only the first wave. Next comes a nonstop bombardment of shells that lasts through the night.

Together, Harriet and Jeremy make their way back to Jeremy's house in hopes of finding his mother, Maeve. Sick with worry, Maeve is waiting in a bomb shelter.

Unable to assuage her concerns, Maeve leaves the shelter in search of her son, following a throng of people heading for the countryside.

Harriet and Jeremy arrive at an empty house exhausted and traumatized beyond anything they could ever imagine. In that brief moment, they find themselves inexplicably drawn to each other and, later, torn apart.

When the sun finally rises, Jeremy is gone and Maeve and Harriet find comfort and a long-forgotten past in one another.

"Coventry" is a fast read. At less than 200 pages, it's easily devoured in a sitting or two.

Here, Humphreys brings a brief and largely ignored moment to the fore. And her eye for detail and meticulous research is evident throughout. Readers are transported to a different time and place as they run down the streets with Harriet and Jeremy, ducking debris and hiding from danger.

In "Coventry," history is both actor and setting, with each taking active rolls. World War II buffs, fans of history or those just looking for a rich and intriguing story will appreciate this enticing read.

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com