Peter Cameron clearly believes in a rule that Hilary Mantel has articulated: Trust that your reader is at least as smart as you yourself. Cameron allows the reader to make inferences—to fill in blanks.
Cameron’s great literary loves are the 20th century British storytellers Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor is a novelist, not a film star. Curiously, the fact that she is named Elizabeth Taylor may account for her lack of fame; readers may have thought, Wait, is that Elizabeth Taylor of Cleopatra? Confused and slightly irritated, readers may have skipped right past the novels of Taylor the Writer.
Anyway, Cameron has a webpage devoted to his literary pantheon, the great writers who have inspired him. Pym and Taylor are both on that page. I have derived hours of pleasure from the works of Pym and Taylor, and I owe thanks to Cameron for the recommendation.
Cameron has said that his new novel, Coral Glynn, is a kind of homage to the works of British ladies of a certain era—Pym, Taylor, Ivy Compton-Burnett.
This most recent Cameron novel takes place in the ‘50s, in England. There is an isolated house where an old woman, Mrs. Hart, is dying. A nurse, Coral Glynn, comes to look after the old woman. Meanwhile, the old woman’s wounded son, Major Hart, studies Coral from a distance. He decides he might want to marry Coral, because he fears loneliness. His former love, a man named Robin, is already married to a woman. Robin and Major Hart are afraid to run off together; presumably, such a decision would not be greeted favorably by outsiders. Robin’s wife is a chatty woman named Dolly, and Robin’s marriage is very sad.
I love Cameron’s attention to absurdity. I love that his conversations sometimes lead nowhere, and often the conversations are about one subject, on the surface, but about something quite different between the lines. This feature is such a nice change after the last novel I reviewed, Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys, where dialogues were too-often straightforward and implausible—and where subtext was often discarded in favor of painfully obvious expository paragraphs.
Back to Coral and her journey. Bizarrely, after a brief period in Major Hart’s residence, Coral is implicated in a mysterious murder. Major Hart suggests that she flee. She does, and begins a new life. She finds a job quite easily. A visiting young man seduces her, and Coral seems to fall in love with this man.
It’s a testament to Cameron’s powers that he doesn’t need to spell out: Love is what is happening here. The reader is left to make inferences based on characters’ statements and actions. And this is precisely what is missing from Strout’s novel. In Strout’s novel, too often, Strout spells out what the characters are feeling. It’s almost as if she were telling the characters: “Feel this way!” And so the characters seem to lack life. They are like pawns, or like bits of clay, getting twisted and manipulated in order to assist Strout in presenting her foregone conclusions.
To say more about Cameron’s plot would be to spoil some delightful surprises. Leave it at this: Coral is a woman marching up and out of depression and trauma. When we first see her, she is lost in a fog. She is so neurotic and self-obsessed, she doesn’t even fully notice an act of torture that she stumbles upon. But there’s hope for her.
One of the many pleasures of this novel are the occasional, graphic, and seemingly incongruous references to sex. These are arresting; you feel as if you are in Barbara Pym territory, and then the narrator makes an allusion to a character’s stiffening cock. Part of the joy of this novel is seeing what Pym might have written if she had been working in an era of permissiveness—an era like our own.
Cameron’s attention to the riddles of psychology should also be commended. The character of Dolly seems foolish at first—but as the plot thickens, Dolly turns out to be quite strong. The reader hopes to feel purely exasperated by Dolly, because Dolly often says ridiculous things. But as the story unfolds, Dolly seems more and more heroic; the reader begins to root for her, because she seems so much tougher and more courageous than the men in her life. She is a notably complex character—and wholly believable.
And then there’s the memorable portrait of Mrs. Prence, a simple, judgmental old woman who cleans house for Major Hart. Mrs. Prence betrays Coral in a shocking way; she makes all kinds of ludicrous assumptions about Coral, a woman she hardly knows. This is plausible; perhaps Mrs. Prence resents Coral’s presence in Hart House, and perhaps Mrs. Prence, with little education, is inclined to feel suspicious toward anyone younger than she is. In any case, the manner in which Mrs. Prence stains Coral’s reputation is especially horrifying, because you get the sense that Mrs. Prence doesn’t fully realize what she is doing. We stumble around doing harm to one another, like bulls in china shops, as the saying goes; we sometimes fail to grasp that our actions have serious consequences for the people around us.
And a bit of praise for Cameron’s style: I want to note that this novelist uses verbs very well. Here is a trick he adapted from Pym: He almost always uses “said” as a speech tag. He does not waste time on “protested”, “urged”, “shouted. .These verbs are often unnecessary, because they simply repeat some information that the reader has already inferred from the content of the speech. The only time Cameron abandons the “said” speech tag is when he finds a verb that can convey something surprising—and very funny.
Lastly, it’s worth noting that Cameron is very much interested in questions about sexual orientation. Over and over, same-sex desire becomes a main issue for his characters. Cameron rarely sees the world of desire in black and white. For example, Major Hart seems to like both men and women. The narrator in Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) is gay, but he doesn’t feel the need to tell us until deep, deep into the novel; it’s just one part of who he is. In Leap Year (Harper Collins, 1990), a heretofore heterosexual man discovers he might have same-sex interests when he finds himself staring and staring at the upper arm of a male co-worker—wishing never to look away.
Gay readers—such as this PopMatters reviewer—may find they enjoy Cameron’s work in part because the gay characters are so rich and complicated. You do not find the stereotypes here that you might find in a TV show or a movie.
In any case, this particular reviewer can’t get enough of Cameron’s work. I have read Someday This Pain several times, and I’m always marveling at Cameron’s subtlety, intelligence, and humor. Coral Glynn is a worthy addition to Cameron’s already impressive canon.