Thursday, February 23, 2012

On Peter Cameron, Coral Glynn, The Fifties, and a Whole Bunch of Wonderful Writers, Many of Whom I Haven't Read (Yet).

The setting is a English village in the 1950s. Coral Glynn, a young nurse takes as her charge an elderly dying woman, Mrs. Hart. Also living there is the woman's disabled son, Major Clement Hart and their fiercely loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Prence. Then theelder Hart passes and Coral receives an offer of marriage from the Major.
I don't want to say more than that. I feel I've perhaps given too much away, though there is far more on the copy of the book jacket. What one has to know is the pieces are all in place. Coral, shy and innocent as she appears, is not exactly what she appears to be, nor is the Major.

Coral Glynn (on sale 2/28) is a novel imbued with fifties British style. But it's not the fifties that we think about, Eisenhower-era nuclear families taking new government-built highways from our little boxes to our sparkling new shopping malls.

In England, the country was still rebuilding from a devastating war. Sure, council flats were going up in areas where not everyone wanted to see them. But that wasn't really so much about what was going on the United States--that was more related to the fraying of the traditional class system.

Now I'm no expert, but I've been told that a sharp reading of fifties fiction will indicate that many authors were writing about this, as well as the cultural changes that exploded in the sixties. Things like new ways to think about, not just class, but gender roles and sexual identity. And Cameron has great command of the period, and yet is able to play out more the struggles that were often not quite named in novels of that time. The Major has a past (not giving much away,  it is revealed quickly) with his friend Robin (now married to Dolly), and Coral has been a victim of impropriety at her previous household.

You can tell that Cameron has read widely from this oeuvre (he cites Rose Macaulay, Penelope Mortimer, and Elizabeth Taylor on his website), but from my personal experience, we're talking mostly about the early novels of Barbara Pym here. Pym wrote diligently through the 1950s to little acclaim, gave up, and was rediscovered in the 1970s, later called the most under-rated novelist of the twentieth century. She is one of my favorite novelists, and certainly one of the few adult writers whose novels I have reread. Some of her most lauded works came after she started writing again (I believe Cameron's favorite is Quartet in Autumn), but I have a special love for the early books, that seem in some ways so observant of the future.

But my friend John is an expert on other novelists of this sort. I think about his love for Ivy Compton-Burnett, whose body of work stretches from the twenties (actually there is something published in 1911, but it seems far removed and it's for another writer to explain the gap) into the early 1960s. And several years ago, he turned me on to Elizabeth Jenkins's The Tortoise and The Hare, which I've written about in Boswell and Books. Alas, despite some success selling this novel, nobody has yet to reissue another--perhaps one is on Nancy Pearl's list of Kindle exclusives--a sigh, as an aside.

So now here's the place where I note that the code of honor for bookselling is that we never reveal who purchased a book. That's what opposition to the Patriot Act is all about. But I wrote to Cameron and asked if it was ok, and since I got permission (the way Bunch of Grapes must do when asked what the Obamas bought on vacation) to say that Cameron bought his copy of The Tortoise and the Hare from us. Needless to say, I was quite the giddy schoolgirl about the whole thing.

And like any proud bookseller, I'm pretty sure he was happy with the purchase. For despite being a totally different book in tone, it is one of those very novels written in the fifties that hints at coming changes, seeming at once so very period and surprisingly modern.

I don't know if you've read Peter Cameron's past fiction, but I think I've read everything he's published, except maybe for the second short story collection, which I still regret. From One Way or Another to Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You, Cameron has created a body of work where each work, despite its differences, shares a haunting tone laced with humor, a powerful voice, and a remarkable way with language.

I love them all but I would say the three that have stayed with me the longest are City of Your Final Destination, The Weekend, and the sadly out of print Leap Year, which was written in installments for a newspaper, a la Tales of the City. Now I don't know if Cameron's first novel will hold up twenty years later, and honestly I'm not sure I want to know. I'm scared that if I don't like it at much, it will destroy my good memories. Funny how that is.

That's the beauty of art. When I read Coral Glynn, I announce that despite his having synthesized many, many works of this time period, this is so extremely and individually a welcome addition to the Cameron canon. And the book's coda, which perhaps turned it from a great work into one I wanted to hug to my chest and maybe give a little peck to, is an homage to Pym, whether intended or not.

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