Why would Peter Cameron, a twenty-first century American living in Manhattan, write a period piece set in postwar provincial England? I was intrigued. Coral Glynn, Cameron’s sixth novel, is a departure from his most recent work, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. That critically acclaimed book is a smart, quirky first-person coming-of-age story about an urban teenager filled with postmodern angst, written with the edgy nerve befitting our post-terrorism, neo-Prozac age. I first discovered Someday through my now-teenage son, since it was originally marketed for young adults. If it is not on your radar, it should be.
As I entered the time machine of Coral Glynn, I was so absorbed by the pull of Cameron’s compelling prose and barbed wit that I stopped wondering why he chose such an unlikely setting. The novel is a suspenseful yarn involving murder, sex, and a biting critique of social mores. In its maze of misdirection and repartee, it could be a screwball comedy if it weren’t at times so tragic.
The title is the name of a young live-in visiting nurse hired to care for an elderly terminal patient near Leicester, England, in the spring of 1950. Coral doesn’t realize, when she arrives at the Hart’s manor, that she is entering a kind of haunted house. “Everything’s gone topsy-turvy after the war,” we are told. “Blame it on Mr. Hitler.”
In the short time Coral inhabits Hart House, her patient, Mrs. Hart, dies, and the housekeeper tells the police it is Coral’s fault. When a young girl is hanged in the forest near the manor, Coral is also accused of that crime. As a stranger in a community where everyone has known each other for generations, she is suspect. Her past haunts her, too, when her former employer tries to frame her for theft.
Coral is young, naive, and vulnerable, with no home or family. Tossed from house to house when her patients either die or recover, she is forced to live under the roof of men who have access to her bedroom. Finally, she agrees to marry one of them.
Cameron is an expert at banter, the veneer over all left unsaid. “Are you worried that [Coral] will take one look at my comely ankle and fall in love with me?” Major Hart asks Robin, the man he still loves with his soul, if not his body. Robin compares his wife Dolly to a dog “in the nicest possible way,” and Dolly tells Coral that having one’s own bedroom is “the key to a happy marriage,” once Coral becomes engaged to Dolly’s husband’s former lover. Coral and Major Hart, as a sexually awkward couple on their wedding night, rival the characters in Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.
The milieu that Cameron creates is a masterpiece of indirection and understatement, deceptions of convenience, and the hushed tones of shame and fear. Major Hart and Robin meet at the pub every Thursday to “talk about not talking about their relationship.” Coral says “Of course I understand” to everything the Major tells her, but thinks, “I don’t understand anything. It [is] like waking up in a foreign country.” Everyone pretends that the elderly Mrs. Hart’s death is a tragedy, though we know that she “never met a person she liked” and that her son had to resist the impulse to “rush upstairs and hold a pillow against her face” when she was alive.
As the book unravels, it reveals the toxicity of chronic deception, and Coral is not the only victim. Robin says, of his pining for more from Major Hart: “It was worth very little, friendship. It did not keep you warm at night. You could not even touch it. Friendship gave you a little bit of something you needed a lot of, slowly starving you, weakening you, breaking you down.”
Major Hart’s distance from his body is an effective metaphor for his efforts to put himself at arm’s length from his sexual orientation. His body, injured in the war, “was nowhere near as repellent as he imagined it to be. . . yet he felt the effect was total, in the way that a few prominent cracks in a ceramic vase ruin it entirely.” He often touched “the dead skin on his torso that had no feeling left. . . and then he would touch a patch of skin that had been spared, and . . . the electric thrill of the feeling seemed an even worse shock.”
In the end, Robin’s deception not only achieves his goal of separating Major Hart from Coral, his new bride, after she is banished to London. His concealment also effects a final rupture between the two men, instead of the rapprochement he had pined for.
Though set in the past, Coral Glynn could only be written now. I can’t imagine a portrayal of two men coping with the need to cover up their homosexuality in book from sixty-two years ago.
Cameron counts among his strongest influences the novels of British women writers such as Rose Macaulay, Barbara Pym, Penelope Mortimer, and Elizabeth Taylor. In my contemporary-centric focus, I have missed these authors. Maybe I need to travel back in my own time machine and find them.