Wednesday, May 02, 2012

What We're Reading

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

Coral Glynn is an elegantly written and provocatively odd work of fiction. In the spring of 1950, a young nurse named Coral Glynn has taken a job at an isolated manor house in the English countryside. She has been hired to attend Mrs. Hart, an old woman in her waning days as she is slowly dying of cancer. Her son, Major Hart, has been horribly wounded in the war, believes he is unmarriageable, and shortly after his mother’s death begins a short and strange courtship of Coral that result in a hasty marriage, celebrated in a civil ceremony and awkward wedding luncheon attended by an unlikely cast of characters. One secret drives Coral to be receptive to the major’s offer of marriage, and another causes her to flee to London alone on her wedding night.

Cameron sets the tone for this novel by his description of the Hart house’s isolated and overcast natural setting. It is a moist, misty, and moldy world that mirrors the lonely sadness and shadowed interior lives of the main characters we will soon encounter. Enervation suffuses this somber world and seems to invite the imaginatively gothic and surreal. What is unusual in this novel--both engaging and unsettling--is that the reader comes to know its characters not by their dialogue or through the narrator’s exposition of their thoughts or feelings, but rather by omission, by what is not explained. Their conversation is wooden, inexpressive of any sense of self (which is perhaps inchoate), and almost comically inept. Minor characters are voluble, but the protagonists hardly say a thing. We are witness to odd and unexpected actions on the part of the characters, and are left to speculate on what insight this might give us into their character and motivation. The characters in Coral Glynn (and especially Coral herself) are people who are leading lifeless lives, who are passive and bewildered, and do not know their own minds. They seem to be traumatized in many respects. They make desperate and ill-considered surrenders to the norms and conventions of what they have been led to believe are havens from aimlessness and a consolation to loneliness. In marriage they seek to ameliorate sadness, not to find happiness. They have little idea of what might make them happy or what they wish their lives to be. Because of this, the oddity of what transpires, however inexplicable, seems plausible to us.

In addition to the unusual approach to character development, this novel defies narrative expectations in important ways. The major characters don’t reveal much through their speech, but the narrator, deliberately, does not supply that want with any omniscience. Some things remain unknown. This makes the novel seem more like real life, but paradoxically, it also keeps us conscious that this is a work of art, as do other characteristics of the writing. We are aware of the author and the performance: the shimmering descriptions of the most somber things, the surprising and apposite metaphors, the unexpected turns in the plot, the surprising words and characterizations that drop and splash suddenly into the serene and distanced surface of the narrative pose. Above all, this is a novel about choices, and Coral--in spite of her confusion and misdirection--has the ability to imagine, as her landlady describes it, “true love,” and finds in herself the character and strength to hold out for it. This fine novel, with its nuanced mysteries that leave us to speculate about the motivations and actions of its characters, would be a wonderful choice for book clubs.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, RTKO, for this very thoughtful and interesting response to my book. It made me happy to know that someone had read it with such care and sympathetic consideration. Thank you! Peter