Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Jack Higgins’ The Eagle Has Landed, Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds—authors writing about war have been succumbing to the temptation to Put a Bird On It long before the Portlandia skit. And the tendency doesn’t apply just to books. Birdsong is an important element in Olivier Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time” (the inspiration for Johanna Skibsrud’s recent novel of the same name), written when the French composer was held prisoner by the Nazis during the Second World War.
And no wonder. When it comes to war, birds—symbolism-wise—pretty much have it all. At the (literally) hawkish end of the spectrum you’ve got your birds of prey: eagles, falcons and aforesaid hawks. If it’s more delicate, nuanced ironies you’re after, on the other hand, you can’t do better than songbirds, which sing their hearts out in the height of battle and fly merrily about in full view of prison camps, apparently oblivious to our suffering.
The cover of Helen Humphreys’ new Second World War-set novel, The Evening Chorus, with its songbird delicately perched on a length of barbed wire that could double for a thorny branch, plays on the latter juxtapositions. But those who complain endlessly that there are no good roles for birds in novels these days, that they function merely as metaphoric eye candy, will be pleasantly surprised when they crack the spine of Humphreys’ book. Here, a family of redstarts assumes a starring role for nearly a hundred pages when an RAF officer named James Hunter (one of three characters whose triangulated perspectives make up the tale) decides to make their study a means to fill long, structureless days in a German POW camp.
James’ activities soon draw the attention of the Kommandant, who summons him for questioning. After establishing that James isn’t plotting his escape, the Kommandant proves unexpectedly supportive of his prisoner’s newfound hobby: he presents James with a guide to German birds and, later, drives him to some local woods to observe a rare gathering of cedar waxwings.
In letters home, James tries to share his enthusiasm for the redstarts with his wife, Rose. But alas, Rose’s own eye is trained on a bird of a different feather; namely, an officer on leave named Toby. As we get to know Rose during her time at the narrative helm, however, our knee-jerk condemnation is mollified somewhat. She and James were practically newlyweds when he went overseas, and there appears to be some credence to her conviction that Toby, with his laddish joie de vivre, is more temperamentally suited to her than the benign but nerdy James.
But now James’ sister Enid, whose London home has been bombed, has asked if she can come stay with Rose, thus temporarily putting a cold shower on the affair. Rose, unsurprisingly, resents the intrusion. Slowly though, the two women forge a kind of intimacy, especially after Rose discovers that, relationship-wise, they’re in a similar predicament. The problem is that Rose cannot divulge this to her sister-in-law until she asks James for a divorce, at which point Enid will presumably want nothing to do with her.
Humphreys has written about the Second World War before, in 2008’s Coventry, a novel that shares with this one a penchant for meaningful coincidence (both also have scenes in which a white horse appears from nowhere). That coincidences are more readily acceptable in life than they are in novels, where they’re often regarded as unrealistic, or a narrative crutch, is one of many unfair things that authors have to grapple with. Regrettably, it’s one Humphreys decides to ignore on a couple of occasions—one being when Rose’s dog drops physical evidence of a character’s entirely foreseeable death (and in case you didn’t foresee it, it’s presaged by a bird flying into Rose’s cottage) in her actual hand—with cringeworthy results.
Though Humphreys’ prose is characteristically elegant and restrained, from time to time she allows the novel’s avian theme to get out of hand. The Kommandant’s chest is “puffed out like a winter robin’s”; the laughter of Nazi guards “spools like birdsong through the air”; one of James’ fellow prisoners, whose death provides the novel’s most genuinely shocking moment, is whistling “like bird” when he’s cut down by a German officer. Rose’s own whistle for her dead dog, meanwhile, is “like the cry of a mournful, solitary bird.”
The Evening Chorus, when all is said and done, is a formally conventional but for the most part satisfying yarn; a quiet novel about a calamitous event whose most trenchant passages show the cast of Humphreys’ poet’s eye: “The song of the redstart begins as a melody and ends in dissonance, as though the song itself comes undone in the process of singing it, finishing up with all the right notes presented in the completely wrong order.”
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor