28 February 2012

Coral Glynn (Peter Cameron)

Have I told you the story of how I happened upon Peter Cameron? (Not that it is terribly interesting.) He was writer-in-residence in November '04 for the Wichita State University MFA creative writing program--I was blundering about in grad school at the time (this would last another semester), and so attended his reading at Watermark Books, where I'd launch my career as a bookseller in March '08. I was immediately taken with the prose he read from The City of Your Final Destination (which may have the best-observed naturalistic dialogue I've ever encountered). Since then, I'd only read his YA-hardcover-adult-paperback Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, a latter-day Catcher in the Rye in all the best ways--but even with only two novels under my belt, I count Cameron as one of my favorite authors, and I tracked down an ARC of Coral Glynn as soon as it became available.

It's strikingly different from the other books of his I've read--largely because it's so painstakingly unmodern in style, written as if contemporaneous with its story, set in the English countryside during the wet spring of 1950. It reads Graham-Greene-y to me, though the back cover copy says it's "[b]orrowing from themes and characters prevalent in the work of mid-twentieth-century British women writers." (Which elicits the question WHO, darn it, besides Muriel Spark? Doris Lessing, perhaps? Probably the answer lies within the NYRB Classics catalog.) But it's much less interior than Greene, very much lives observed from without, with a deadpan, detached eye. The eponymous Miss Glynn is a visiting nurse at an isolated manor house, caring for the terminally ill Mrs. Hart, wandering through the nearby woods, flinching from human contact--though her options are limited to the old woman's son, Clement, badly burnt in World War Two and unhappily homosexual, and the disgruntled housekeeper, Mrs. Prence, rather a classic character of English fiction. One day, Coral happens upon two children playing a cruel "game" in a thicket of holly, but mentions it to nobody; later, she consents to marry Clement after his mother's death, an emotionless convenience for them both.

I can't quite put my finger on how it's done, but the novel is both formal to the point of frigidity, and suffused with melancholy and malice. Coral, Clement, his friend and former lover Robin, Robin's chattery alcoholic wife, Dolly: these are all people burying severe pain so deep they almost succeed in erasing it. And there isn't the sudden explosion you'd think, that usually occurs in books of this nature--these people just continue to live, working hard to achieve an unspectacular happiness. It's a question of survival: as Clement says, asking Coral to marry him, that "I can feel it already, something inside me, someone inside me, moving from room to room, shutting all the doors, shuttering the windows." A terrifying feeling.


  1. I know two of the writers that Peter Cameron emulates in 'Coral Flynn' are Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym. I've read all of Elizabeth Taylor's work, and she is a writer worth emulating, exceeedingly good.

  2. Thank you! I have been eyeing NYRB's edition of Taylor's ANGEL for a bit. Will add to the queue.


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