Coral Flynn

By Peter Cameron

Published: March 18, 2012

There is an ancient class of vessels, found in Roman tombs, called lachrymatories: tiny glass flasks, often shaped like tears, into which mourners are said to have collected the spill of their weeping eyes. This entrancing image flitted through my mind as I read Peter Cameron’s new novel, “Coral Glynn.” By the end of this sad, beautiful, absorbing story of love missed, love lost, love found, I was thinking that this must be what it’s like to slip into a bath of hot tears.

It would be a disservice to the novel’s intricate and subtle construction to give even a cursory summation of its unfolding events. Cameron has taken great pains to artfully reveal the wounding shards of personal history that motivate – or enervate – every character. They lie inside each person, so the reader has the sense of their hidden presence even before the lacerating shock when they’re let loose.

Quite apart from narrative drive, there is plenty of propulsion in the powerful elegance of the writing in this story of a young nurse named Coral Glynn. It is the spring of 1950, and she has taken a job at an isolated manor house in the English countryside. There she is tending – or, rather, shepherding to her death – an old woman stricken with cancer.

The novel opens with a description of the grounds surrounding the house. Offering little relief or even escape to the young woman, they perfectly replicate the scene indoors, to say nothing of the interior landscape of the house’s inhabitants: “The blond gravel on the garden paths had turned green, each pebble wrapped in a moist transparent blanket of slime, and one could not sit on either of the two cement benches that flanked the river gate without first unhinging the snails and slugs adhered to them.” There is nowhere to turn for solace, though it is only the nurse who seeks it. Even “the air was damp and considered bad.”

The other characters have withdrawn into carapaces of bitter sorrow. The dying woman screams out in her sleep for morphine, craving “the sudden gorgeous prick of it in her worn flesh.” Her son, a middle-aged man named Clement Hart, who also lives in the house, seems hard-hearted. He tells Coral that he no longer attends to his mother because “we were through with one another a long time ago.”

Clement seems to be through with many things. He survived a terrible ordeal by fire during the war, which has left much of his body scarred; he walks feebly and uses a cane. Though lucky to be alive, he thinks himself repellent, ugly “in the way that a few prominent cracks in a ceramic vase ruin it entirely.” He has numbed himself to hope, though he takes great care to dress handsomely, “with almost excruciating attention.”

Who would be attracted to him? No matter. He is relieved to be “excused from love and marriage and all the preliminary and subsequent complications and mortifications they involved.” The dead tissue stretched across his body is hard and dry, senseless. “And then he would touch a patch of skin that had been spared, and the silken softness of it, the electric thrill of the feeling, seemed an even worse shock.” His best friend since they were schoolboys, Robin Lofting, still loves him, with “an almost unbearable pain.” But their love is impossible, so Robin has married.

This is hardly the most welcoming of households for a lost soul like Coral. Naturally timid, she is frequently bewildered and frustratingly passive in the face of small, commonplace humiliations. But even unspeakable violence can’t penetrate her haze. Like Clement, she has numbed herself from mortifications too soon visited on a tender young life, for Coral has been ill used. The novel follows her quiet but steady journey out of, as Trollope put it, “a lifeless life.”

Small things unhinge her nervous placidity. She buys a lavender silk dress, though “to try to look beautiful, which effort implied a belief that one could achieve beauty, made her feel uneasy.” When she tries it on in her room, she realizes she can’t do up the zipper and hooks at the back. “It seemed very cruel to design a dress that the wearer could not don independently.” The problem with the dress is the problem with her life. Coral drifts into compromising situations – and panics. She feels trapped; she can’t think.

Some readers may want to yank Coral’s dress over her shoulders, shake some sense into her and shove her on her way. One can only hope that such readers never become psychoanalysts. Healthy minds are not Cameron’s subject. This is a book of delicate sensibilities. Cameron’s characters are in danger of defeat almost as soon as they set out. “It is too exhausting, what people expect,” thinks Coral – whose problem, more often than not, is that she can’t bring herself to actually say what she thinks.

Cameron’s patient, painstaking concern is with the fog banks of neuroses, in which even the most inconsequential gesture settles, like a heavy woolen blanket, over an aching heart. He writes about an unbearable, smothering sadness that renders even violence dully prosaic. But it would be a mistake – one everybody in Coral’s life seems to have made, including herself – to think that because a person is undemanding, even yielding to whatever abuse is visited on her, she doesn’t want, desperately, to be loved.

There is a forest near the house in which Coral works, a mysterious place where she thinks she hears someone crying. But it is “just the weird sawing of the holly leaves, chafing in the wind.” The woods are cut through with paths leading to places that hint at different worlds – a churchyard, an overgrown garden, water meadows, an abandoned aerodrome. Although the woods aren’t large, Coral senses that there is “a feeling of isolation in the center of them.” As there is in her life.

Everyone in this novel has occasion to spill copious but silent tears. They don’t weep in vain – and that’s the story’s saving grace. Through almost imperceptible movement, these people find, in the forest of their daily experience, a clearing. And if they’re lucky, they even find a path through its dark heart.

Those tear flasks remained unpainted until their owners experienced the death of a loved one. “Thou tellest my wanderings,” the Old Testament says. “Put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?” This gracious novel tells of one soul’s wanderings. But Coral Glynn’s tears of calamity are, finally, bottled. In Cameron’s novel, pain becomes the scrollwork etched across memory, a surface decoration of the vessel that is one small, foolish, buoyant life. There is always hope.
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This was an odd book. I think there were too many questions remaining at the end, about the characters and who they really were, about what happened at various points, about why people did what they did. I needed to keep reading, to hope a lot of... more

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