Humphreys (Nocturne, 2013, etc.) offers a heartbreaking yet redemptive story about loss and survival surrounding a British prisoner of war during World War II and the wife he barely got to know before his capture.
After James’ plane is shot down on his first mission as an RAF pilot in 1940, the former grammar school science teacher spends the rest of the war in POW camps, where he watches fellow prisoners fail, often fatally, in their attempts at escape. Deciding he prefers simple survival, he eschews such attempts and concentrates on keeping a journal on local birds. He also develops a complicated relationship with the prison’s kommandant, a classics professor who studied at Oxford and serves grudgingly in the military; he recognizes a kindred spirit in James and allows his nature study. In her nuanced description of the kommandant’s attempts at kindness and James’ responses both during and after the war, Humphries uncovers the human dimension in wartime brutality. Meanwhile, deeply in love with his new wife, Rose, James purposely writes her letters focused on bird lore instead of his own condition because “he doesn’t want his words home to degenerate into a litany of complaint.” In a sad irony, Rose misunderstands his intent—not unlike the way James misinterprets the kommandant’s intent in taking him to see a rare cedar waxwing—and assumes he doesn’t feel strongly about her. Desperately lonely, she becomes involved with a soldier stationed nearby, discovering with her lover the passionate emotion James feels but cannot express. Cut to 1950 as James and Rose face the war’s aftermath with varying measures of guilt, bitterness and resilience, not to mention what ifs. As Rose realizes, “[i]t’s so hard to get life right....All the small balances are impossible to strike most of the time.”
Humphreys deserves more recognition for the emotional intensity and evocative lyricism of her seemingly straightforward prose and for her ability to quietly squirrel her way into the reader’s heart.