Blunders of the lonely in 1950’s England

July 22, 2012

This is Peter Cameron’s sixth novel, and it is my first to read among his books, including his short-story collections. At the end of Coral Glynn, I was so taken with the meticulously crafted narrative and Cameron’s understanding of human behavior that I wanted to read his other books. I mention that because, of anything, wanting to keep reading an author’s work testifies to the presence of excellence. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, his previous novel, is where I’m headed.

Coral Glynn takes its title from the name of the novel’s private nurse who arrives at Hart House in the English countryside to care for the dying old Mrs. Hart. She meets the judgmental Mrs. Prence, the housekeeper, and the son Major Clement Hart, injured with severe burns and damaged legs during WWII. It is the 1950s. The atmosphere in the house is careful and subdued. Mrs. Hart dies sooner than Coral expected — only four weeks after her arrival. The following morning, Clement proposes marriage to her.

They hardly know each other, but Clement fears he will “go all bitter and dead inside like my mother” if left alone in the house. He acknowledges there is no love (“I’m not asking for love”) and that his proposal may seem absurd, rash and thoughtless. But neither of them have family, and Coral has nowhere to go. She responds to the proposal with confusion and says she will give an answer by evening. During a walk in the woods that day, this passive, awkward young woman stumbles upon a boy and girl playing a shockingly violent game called “Prisoner.”  She scolds them and leaves. That night, she agrees to marry Clement, and wedding plans swiftly ensue.

There is a moment in the proposal scene when Clement assures Coral he’s a good person. He says he sees the same goodness in her, but Coral replies, “I am less sure of myself.” Readers will scoot past this innocuous reply, but it is here the story begins to turn, with Cameron signaling there is more to Coral than her awkward loneliness. Clement protests in her defense, and again, Cameron, with his masterful subtlety and firm grasp of human behavior, sends a signal with Coral’s silence. And then, just after, there’s that game of “Prisoner” Coral stumbles upon in the woods, casting an ominous shadow and, possibly, intended comment on a marital commitment without love. The story glides forward as if everything is all right, and yet there is this uneasiness developing, cleverly fueling our curiosity.

From this point forward, I won’t reveal the sequence of events to preserve the story’s surprising plot twists — you won’t see them coming — and random missteps. I will say, though, the game in the woods creates consequences for Coral and Clement. Also, their impetuous union, founded in part on Clement’s assumption that Coral is no more than what he sees before him, opens a door to uncomfortable deceptions. Herein lies a significant theme, clarified when Coral, late in the novel, assumes an old woman is nothing more than her simple days with her cat on her lap. When she learns the woman was a famous opera singer during her younger years, Coral thinks, “How was it ever possible to know who, or what, people really were? They were all like coins, with two sides, or dice, with six.” It is this very truth that makes Coral Glynn deeply satisfying on many levels, that creates its quiet, powerful intensity.

I found an interesting YouTube video — “Meet Peter Cameron” — in which the author talks about his writing. He says, “I don’t write autobiographically in terms of the content of the book, but I am aware that all my books come from who I am as a person, and therefore I want to make them narratively and geographically as different from one another as possible.” Something else in the video: the author talks about his efforts in the book arts. An online search led me to Wallflower Press, offering Mr. Cameron’s hand-crafted, limited-edition books. I was thrilled that one of them is “Bunny Says It’s the Death Watch,” a long-time favorite short story I read in 1987 in American Wives: Thirty Short Stories by Women, now out of print. And so, with these attractive handmade books, there is an additional, compelling reason to follow the work of Peter Cameron.

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