Monday, June 4, 2012

A "Southern Gothic" drama set in England

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron

I don't recall why I picked up Coral Glynn in the first place, but I finally got around to reading it on a flight to Milwaukee and back because it fit perfectly in my carry-on bag. Turns out, it's a perfect summer read.

Coral Glynn is a nurse—young, single, attractive, but friendless and family-less—who arrives at Hart House in remote southern England in the dismal, rain-soaked spring of 1950 to attend to the estate's dying mistress. The scene is pure Gothic: a deathwatch in a half-deserted mansion down a lonely road surrounded by flooded marshland and dripping woods. And so are the characters, from the churlish housekeeper Mrs. Prence, who takes an instant dislike to the pretty young nurse, to the dowager's son, Major Clement Hart, tall, dark and handsome but grievously wounded in the war and stoically resolved  to living out his days in pain and solitude. Coral Glynn stumbles unwittingly into a simmering broth of betrayals, resentments and barely-kept secrets at Hart House and in short order finds herself engaged to Clement Hart and accused of not one but two murders.

Coral Glynn is no murder mystery, though. It's more like one of those great black-and-white dramas from the 1940s or '50s, filled with looming shadows, ominous silences and characters staggering under nameless curses of their own devising. Cameron's prose is so cinematic, in fact, that the early chapters actually played out in black-and-white in my mind before things suddenly burst into Technicolor brilliance as the setting shifts and time flashes forward later in the book. If you're a hardcore nerd like me, you'll be tempted to go back and re-read Coral Glynn with a pencil in hand to see how Cameron manages this trick. Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy the show.

Near the end of the book, a man finds himself unable to sleep after learning that a former lover had passed through town earlier that day and asked after him. As he slips out of bed, he caresses his wife's teary cheek and assures her, "I'm just going out for a little stroll." She, in turn, "laugh[s] quietly" and asks "Isn't that what God said, before he abandoned us all?" In a story driven by missed opportunities, serial abandonments and aggressive reticence, seemingly throwaway lines like that take on unexpected weight. Whether you read mainly for the story or for the prose, Coral Glynn will leave you impressed.

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