That Other Country
There are so many intriguing aspects to Peter Cameron’s latest novel, Coral Glynn, that I have no reservations in recommending it enthusiastically. Yet, my immediate response upon finishing it was to attempt to explain the strange sense of distance, estrangement even, that his characterization provoked. This period, 1950s “English domestic drama” (so the book’s cover blurb) evoked the same effect as might a black-and-white film from about that time (say the 1945 Brief Encounter): a strong sense of atmosphere, of striking angled portraits, of outmoded styles.
Opacity in characterization, access denied the reader to the motives or goals of the characters in a novel, challenges its realism. Convention has us on intimate terms with the protagonist or adversary, sometimes through inner monologue or through the simple, “she thought . . .” We often expect the narrator, third or first person, to reveal the mental flow of thought that will provide cause and effect understanding as to what comes next in the sequence of the plot. When dialogue predominates in the story telling and exposition is limited, when characters act in unexpected or bizarre ways, when information about characters is suppressed for later revelation, then the distance between the reader and the characters in the fiction increases.
Something like this, I think, occurs in Cameron’s novel: yet, rereading it, I came across many occasions in which we are given access to various characters’ thoughts. Somehow even those revelations seem insufficient to illuminate motives. So I find myself puzzling still over his studied effects and their ultimate meaning.
The book follows the title character’s life over the course of a few years. Coral, a nurse who attends the house-bound sick, arrives at the home of Mrs. Hart, a wealthy invalid, who after one month of Coral’s nursing, dies. Her son, Major Clement Hart, a wounded war veteran asks Coral, on very brief acquaintance, to marry. She accepts, but their life together is aborted from its start – Coral’s unlikely involvement in a murder causes her, with her husband’s urging, to flee. This sequence of the plot is particularly opaque – what prompts the Major’s avowal of love to Coral? What motives underlie her acceptance of the offer of marriage? Why does she acquiesce to his urging to run? We have only tentative suggestions – dissatisfaction with the fasteners of a wedding dress, a fleeting attraction to the florist who is to prepare wedding flowers, the Major’s latent homosexuality. The interactions of characters are like those of billiard balls – contact and recoil, with odd spins and angled bumps off obstacles and boundaries.
There is more than a game enacted in Coral’s accidental search for commitment which she finds in a chance encounter with a landlady’s son. What odd promptings of the heart lead the Major to give up his wife and marry a former friend’s spouse? At the novel’s dark heart, there is a holly thicket, the scene of a child’s accidental hanging, of Coral’s solitary walks, and Clement’s final acceptance of his fate. The novel ends in Green Sap Wood, where Clement retraces Coral’s earlier walks where the unsettling hanging occurred. We have a locus of hidden violence linking the fates of the protagonists, who are somehow connected by this strange fatal drama of child’s play gone wrong. Cameron’s vision has us oddly groping for understanding, Coral’s refrain is “I am so muddled, so muddled.” She acts in ways that surprise us, sometimes happily, with the notion that noises off suggest some darker, worrisome cause.
The plot works itself out in such a way, that only the reader can be aware of the near misses, the parallels and the intersections that link thematically the journeys of the principals. This dramatic irony lifts the reader above precarious contingencies of the couple’s unhappiness. So lifted we look down on a world we cannot quite understand and are tempted to consign to that country where things are done differently.