When I was staying in Toronto, Darlene (of Cosy Books) very kindly gave me a couple of books – one of which was Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron (2012). The book rang a bell from her blog and from Thomas/Hogglestock’s, and it sounded like it should be up my street – though there was always the danger that (being a modern novel written by an American about 1950s England) it might wander into the sort of England only seen on BBC America. That is, would it be too Downton for its own good?
Well, luckily, I really enjoyed it. That is more to do with Cameron’s writing and subtle, gradual depiction of character than about his version of 1950s England – which is, indeed, rather like a picture postcard (though there is the threat of new semi-detached houses encroaching in the environs of the colossal house that the hero, naturally, lives in).
But I am getting ahead of myself. Here are the opening paragraphs of the novel:
That spring – the spring of 1950 – had been particularly wet.
An area at the bottom of the garden at Hart House flooded, creating a shallow pool through which the crocuses gamely raised their little flounced heads, like cold shivering children in a swimming class. The blond gravel on the garden paths had turned green, each pebble wrapped in a moist transparent blanket of slime, and one could not sit on either of the two cement beaches that flanked the river gate without first unhinging the snails and slugs adhered to them.
The excessive moistness of the garden was of no concern to anyone at Hart House except for the new nurse, who had arrived on Thursday, and had attempted, on the two afternoons that were somewhat mild, to sit outside for a moment, away from the sickness and strain in the house. But she found the garden inhospitable, and so had resolved to stay indoors.
The new nurse (as you might have started to suspect) is Coral Glynn – she is there to care for the old lady of the household, who has a terminal illness. She is greeted by the taciturn son and heir, (Major) Clement Hart, and the ill-tempered, suspicious housekeeper. In rather an unexpected manner, Coral becomes key to the household – though local tragedy causes disruption here. And with those coy words I shall say no more about the plot.
Despite being light and endearing, there is a sensitive portrait of loneliness and uncertainty at the centre of the novel. Coral is brave and headstrong in some ways, but is orphaned and alone, and unaccustomed to friendship. Besides the Major are his married friends Dolly and Robin – Dolly is a vivacious type who immediately becomes bosom buddies with Coral (or tries to) while Robin is affable but has his own burdens to bear. We soon learn, in a touching aside-scene, that Robin and Clement had once been in love. It adds further dimension to the novel, but it does throw the novel a bit, since scenes between Robin and Clement are the only ones which aren’t focused through Coral’s perspective, so far as I can recall.
The plot rolls on, and Cameron combines the nuance of the characters’ relationships (and, particularly, Coral’s attempts to understand the world she finds herself in – and develop a personality that she feels comfortable with) with an intriguing story. The latter rather collapses, and I wasn’t convinced by the ending, but the journey was rather wonderful – it feels nostalgic without being too fey, and Cameron is a really good storyteller. It’s rare that I prefer a book set in the 1950s to one written in the 1950s – the same goes for any decade, not just the ’50s – but I did rather love reading this one. I’d be interested to see how Cameron writes when he’s not looking across an ocean and into the past, but if his understanding of character is maintained, then I’d like to read him writing about 21st-century America. If he has done?