A very small elephant in the room

Whatever literary prize juries may think, less, in Helen Humphreys’ hands, is decidedly more

Helen Humphreys

Helen Humphreys is reluctant to talk about it, but six popular and critically admired books later, her enduring absence from the national literary prize lists is reaching elephant-in-the-room proportions. No Governor General’s nominations, no appearances on the Giller short list, not even a nod, during the last three years, from the new Giller long list. “I have to admit I was disappointed not to get on the long list this year,” she says from her Kingston, Ont., home about her new novel Coventry (HarperCollins). Perhaps, Humphreys says with a laugh, there’s some sort of feeling out there that a reader just doesn’t get as much bang for the buck from one of her books.

She may be joking, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that size does matter. In this, a thin year for the Giller short list—normally a plus-350 pages crowd—the five finalists still average 278 pages, while the Governor General’s nominees inked an average of 392. No Humphreys book ever topped 200 pages. And critics do take note. Coventry centres on the experiences of Harriet Marsh, a Great War widow, on the night of Nov. 14, 1940, when the British city perished under a Second World War bombing raid. Reviews have been positive, but some also find the novel slight in achievement almost precisely because it’s slight (180 pages) in length, too short to have enough backstory for Harriet and the two other major characters. Less, in much literary judgment, is decidedly not more.

Yet Humphreys’ minimalism is not only exquisitely rendered, it’s virtually inevitable given her writing history, temperament and material. Her fiction, she says, “tends to be about the emotional lives of my characters at a high pitch.” There is very little down time in a Humphreys novel, where characters can rest, and the intensity of her situations, the author continues, means that both she and her readers “can only stay there for a while—that kind of terrain is not good to linger in.”

Humphreys began writing as a poet, and she still “tries poetry,” only to find herself invariably wrapping those poetic ideas into whatever novel she’s working on—“novels are black holes that suck in everything you’ve got.” She misses what she calls poetry’s “immediate gratification,” and seeks it, to the extent it can be found, in her fiction, which means adhering to its spare economy with words. (Even so, Humphreys’ brevity can still surprise her. “I always think each novel is going to be longer,” she says. “Then I get to page 150 or so and I think ‘Oh no, it’s coming to an end.’ ”)

The ultimate Humphreys creation then might well be last year’s genre-bending, 186-page Frozen Thames, with its beautifully carved micro-tales, each corresponding to one of the 40 recorded times London’s river iced over between 1142 and 1895. It became perhaps the author’s most popular work, but for all its unusual format, the book mined the same ground that much of Humphreys’ fiction, including Coventry, always has: the England of her parents’ wartime childhood.

Humphreys was born in London in 1961 and came to Toronto as a child, where her parents’ childhood memories of the Blitz loomed large in the imagination of an artistic young girl. “I heard a lot of stories,” Humphrey recalls: tales of the mindless contingency of war, where who lived and who died depended on the fall of single bomb or the path of one bullet; of her paternal grandfather, an RAF pilot who disappeared in his plane in 1941; of her maternal grandfather who found a forgotten garden on the estate where he came to live. “I’ve always had a lot of nostalgia for their stories.”

Those incidents and themes have all found their way into Humphreys’ fiction, along with concerns more peculiar to herself. Her novels often feature female characters taking on male roles. Harriet Marsh is on duty among the usually all-male fire wardens only because she feels guilty that the fire-watcher in the flat below slipped and wrenched his knee because she had washed the hallway. By the random chances of war, the night she fills in for him is the night Coventry burns.

But there will be no more evocations of the Blitz from Humphreys. “When I finished Coventry,” she says, “I just thought, I’m done with England, I’ve worked out whatever it is I was working out.” Her next novel will be set in 19th-century France; for the first time, the protagonist is a man, even if, for a note of familiarity, he’s a poet. Maybe this time, with so much change already, the story will also be long enough for the literary judges.