Some novels hit you twice: while you're caught in their spell, and then again, after you've finished and are left wondering, What was that all about?
At first blush, Peter Cameron's Coral Glynn is a curio — an atmospheric period piece. In its simplicity, it seems a throwback to mid-20th-century domestic novels, but with echoes of Jane Eyre — a sort of Gothic lite. However, its concerns with repressed homosexuality, lies of omission and whether it's preferable to settle for "a quiet, decent life" or hold out for greater fulfillment are timeless.
The title character is a naive young nurse in perpetually damp, 1950s England. Like Jane Eyre, she's pretty in an ordinary way, and very much on her own. No family at all: her parents dead, her brother killed in the war.
She's a private nurse in more ways than one, moving quietly into her patients' homes until she's no longer needed — or trouble sends her running. When we meet Coral, she has been hired to take care of crabby Mrs. Hart, who is dying of cancer. The old woman's war-damaged, sexually conflicted son, Maj. Clement Hart, is unexpectedly courtly to Coral. Could these two odd ducks actually fulfill each other's needs? Cameron plays with the conventions of romantic fiction, luring the reader into rooting for this unlikely romantic connection despite our better judgment.
Coral, it turns out, travels with heavier baggage than just her small white suitcase. Her moral compass is off-kilter just enough to repeatedly throw her journey. Cameron reveals all this gradually, deliberately catching us as off-guard as his characters. We're taken aback, for example, when Coral catches two children playing an alarmingly sadomasochistic game of prisoner in the woods near Hart House. What are we to think of her walking away — and of our own easy distraction by the drama of something as trivial as the purchase of her new lavender dress?
Cameron revisits the themes of alienation and duplicity explored in his contemporary novels set in America, which include Andorra, The Weekend and Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. His writing is as quiet and unassuming as his heroine, with occasional flashes of surprising beauty. Holly leaves shiver "metallically ... the sound of the world asking once again to be assuaged."
The various strands of Coral Glynn come together as neatly as a schoolgirl's early morning braid. But some loose ends inevitably work their way free — and that's where, in the end, Cameron obliquely directs our focus. Why is Coral's general ambivalence so unsettling? What do the various pairings say about the nature of chance, impulse, hope and trust? More important, what do our reactions to this story — and specifically, our propensity to seek a happily-ever-after, all's-well-that-ends-well ending — indicate about us? Cameron writes, "How was it ever possible to know who, or what, people really were? They were all like coins, with two sides, or die, with six."
In retrospect, Cameron's mesmerizing, melancholy novel is not as pat as it seems. And that's where it really gets interesting.