“It was and it wasn’t’’ is how traditional Arabic storytellers would begin. So different from our “once upon a time’’; so much less definite, so open to the notion that this was only one out of many other possible stories.
It could well characterize the novels of Peter Cameron, an elegantly acute and mysteriously beguiling writer, author of “Andorra’’ (not about Andorra), “The City of Your Final Destination’’ (no finality at all), and “Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You’’ (it won’t, really). The plots, the ventures, the encounters of his characters, instead of taking them from point A to point B, abduct them into unintended and more expansive itineraries.
In “Coral Glynn’’ the three main figures are each, initially, entombed in their own darkness, one that takes different forms but involves a kind of self-concealment. With Clement and Robin, middle-age, middle-class Englishmen, it is their closeted homosexual relationship. With Coral, a pathologically indecisive young woman, it is a distrust of her own feelings so extreme as to have all but killed any.
Coral, a visiting nurse, arrives at a gloomy mansion in an English town to care for a dying old woman. Clement, the son who employs her, is partly disfigured by war wounds and wrapped in silence. There is a malevolent housekeeper; the house is cold, dark, and damp; the garden flooded. As in a Gothic novel, everything menaces. The first half of the book, in fact, is unadulterated Gothic, working its horror on us even as we are aware that we are getting something of a contrived though brilliantly written pastiche. Only in the second half, where Gothic shifts into sardonically redeeming romantic comedy, do we realize that it was much more than pastiche.
Walking in the rain-soaked woods, Coral comes upon a brother and sister playing a weird hanging game; she is too inhibited to stop it; later the girl’s strangled body is found. Clement begins to press his inarticulate attentions on her, proposes marriage - love is not mentioned but his loneliness is - and she lacks sufficient definition to refuse. They have a ghastly dinner with Robin and his wife, Dolly. While Dolly takes her upstairs to gush with maniacal cheerfulness - gush and roomsful of bric-a-brac mask her desolation - Robin makes a pass at his former lover, who is determined but not quite able to suppress his own susceptibility. Never has a closet been so poisonously perfumed.
Other horror-tinged events follow. The wedding reception features an enormous table where the pitifully few guests are separated by icy distances. Then a detective arrives to question Coral. He pops up again on their wedding night, threatening to arrest Coral for failing to report the “game’’ she’d witnessed. Clement insists she must immediately go to London, gives her money, tells her to write him through his friends so he can deny knowing her whereabouts. Relief is palpable for both; but Cameron charges it with a suffocating sense of mutual failure (it was, and it wasn’t).
In London, the lighting shifts. Carol gets regular nursing work; she moves into a rooming house run by a large-spirited Polish landlady. Laszlo, her son, comes to visit; a handsome, warm, and utterly alive young man. Smitten by Coral, he comes to her bedroom one night; and Cameron writes a wonderfully civilized and high-spirited seduction scene. All these things begin to connect Coral to her sense of herself.
Undoubtedly there is contrivance here; the events of the next 15 years, drastically telescoped, tootle along like a nicely designed toy train. But Cameron uses them not for themselves but for a series of beautifully and acutely written glimpses of the passengers - notably Coral and her rise to freedom.
Laszlo is part of it. Passion can extricate us from our confines, but so can other things. Coral comes home one evening to find her landlady, formerly a concert pianist, performing with a seemingly mousy lodger who was once a celebrated singer. Art, too, can raise and unchain. And one day, having had lunch at a café, Coral looks back through the window. “[T]he remnants of her meal remained there as blatant as evidence: she was a person in the world. She existed, and she was free.’’
There is a more conflicted evolution for Robin as he leaves his marriage with Dolly, moves away, and takes up a life with another man running an antique shop. Cameron treats this sketchily and with fairly shallow dramatics; some of the didactic undertones so marvelously transformed elsewhere strike a brassy “pling.’’
On the other hand, he achieves a portrait of Clement’s subsequent life as richly layered in its desolation as Coral’s in her sunlit freedom. After going to pieces following Coral’s departure he is “rescued’’ by a woman friend - naming her would be excessive disclosure - and enters a closet like the one Robin fled; and far more poisoned. Cameron writes these last scenes with lyrical calm; one that conveys a terrible despair.Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.