April 5, 2012 by Reader's Connection
Peter Cameron´s new novel begins in England in 1950, when nurse Coral Glynn goes to work at Hart House in the English countryside, caring for the dying Edith Hart. Also living there are Major Clement Hart, Edith’s son, who was wounded in World War II and is horribly isolated, and the grouchy housekeeper Mrs. Prence.
Coral is a repressed, confused, sorrowful woman who nevertheless, without meaning to, manages to shake up the lives of the major, Mrs. Prence, Robin–a man with whom the major once had a love affair, and who still loves the major–and Dolly, the woman whom Robin has married. I read the book a second time, in part because I had enjoyed it but mostly because I was confused about what I had just read. If the novel confuses you, here are some questions & answers that won’t help at all.
Q. What’s the deal with Coral? I don’t understand her. Like when she goes to the movie theatre and the stranger sitting next to her puts his hand on her knee. There was something almost tender in his gesture, as if she were his wife returning from the ladies’, and in the disorienting darkness Coral was for a moment confused, and thought perhaps she was his wife and the mistake was hers . . .What is with that?
A. Do you remember that David Shumate poem “Mornings with Freud,” in which Freud tells the poet that if he were any more repressed, he wouldn’t exist at all? Coral has almost disappeared. She’s alone in the world, unsure of herself and her life’s direction, and Hart House isn’t a healthy place for her. There are other repressed characters in the novel, and some characters express their emotions strangely.
Q. Is that name, Hart House, supposed to mean something? And the fact that the repressed major is named Hart?
A. I was reminded of the opening of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. Someone asks Orsino if he wants to go hunting “the hart,” a stag, and Orsino makes use of some hart/heart wordplay while babbling on about his self-pitying lovesickness.
Orsino might not have popped into my head if Coral Glynn hadn’t reminded me of Twelfth Night‘s Viola, who comes to emotionally stagnant Illyria and accidentally brings the place back to life.
Q. Major Clement Hart and his friend and one-time lover Robin meet regularly at a pub called The Black Swan. Is that name supposed to mean something?
A. Dunno. But here’s a stanza from James Merrill’s poem “The Black Swan.” It’s the first poem in his collection From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976, and I couldn’t help remembering it when I read the dialogues between Clement and Robin, and thought about the other relationships in the novel.
Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enter
Sorrow’s lost secret center
Where, like a May fête, separate tragedies
Are wound in ribbons round the pole to share
A hollowness, a marrow of pure winter
That does not change but is
Always brilliant ice and air.
Q.In her Salon review of Coral Glynn, Laura Miller writes (as most critics did) of the mid-century women writers whom Cameron emulates and honors with this novel; and she says, “There’s a dash of Daphne du Maurier here, too, and a touch of the sublime Barbara Pym (though not, alas, her humor).” Do you agree that there isn’t any humor in the book?
A. Not at all. Perhaps Miller is thinking of a specific Pym sort of humor. But the novel is often funny, even when it’s disturbing. I laughed out loud while I cringed. Examples wouldn’t work, here, separated from the book’s weird gloom.
And lest my talk of country-house gloom should have you thinking that nothing happens in the book: there’s a murder investigation, four marriages, two divorces, a sexual violation and its eventual recompense, and a scene that might change everyone’s feelings about holly as a Christmas ornament.
All in 210 pages. If you’re mystified when you finish, do what I did and give it another shot.