Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron


published 2012

[Set in 1950: extracts from book]

It was an unusually warm spring day. She removed the jacket she was wearing over a sleeveless dress and felt the sun on her arms and face. It was a new dress, her best dress, navy blue with white polka dots.




There were two dress shops in the town and Coral went to the better one, proclaimed so even by its name, Dalrymple’s Better Dresses…

 [Mrs Henderson the dress shop owner] ‘I’ve got a lavender silk that would look beautiful on you. Take off your coat and hat and let me get a good look at you.’

Coral removed her hat and coat.

‘Just throw them on the pouf my dear,’ the woman said.

Coral was bewildered.

‘The pouf! The tuffet!’ the woman pointed to this so-called piece of furniture and watched as Coral lay her shabby coat and tired hat upon its elegant tufted surface.



‘All right, now turn around. All the way round. Lovely. You have a very nice figure – a bit of a tummy but a girdle will take care of that. And your chestnut hair is just right for the lavender. It will bring out the sheen. Add an egg to your shampoo for sheen. It comes in fawn, too, but I think the lavender is better for you.’



comments: The extracts and dresses above are in the wrong order – the navy dress comes late on in the book, lavender silk is near the beginning. I have reversed them because I wanted to show off that splendid top photo, which is from Harper’s Bazaar: it is particularly treasured by me, because pictures of polka-dot-patterned dresses are very hard to find. As soon as I read of this one in the book, I groaned because I wanted to feature it, but knew it would be difficult. This has been my observation in all the years of the blog: such dresses are very popular and commonplace in real life, but in vintage photos very rare. If you do find such a dress, it will usually be white with dark spots, rarely the other way round. I have idly wondered if spots are difficult to photograph? But I don’t know: it’s a mystery.

I first discovered this fact looking for an illo for this blogpost: I
found one on Kristine’s photostream, and it’s gorgeous, but it is from the 1930s so is out of time for both that book and for the one under discussion now. (last time I just gave up the struggle)



There is this one, from Clover’s The Vintage Tumblr, used for a Peter Dickinson book set in an alternate history so era didn’t matter. It is from 1949, so should’ve been ideal, except that you could never in a million years imagine the Coral Glynn of this book disporting herself like this.






She is a most unusual heroine, and perhaps protagonist is a better word. The reader does end up rooting for her, but she is a strange and not particularly appealing woman. It is 1950: she is a private nurse who goes to work in a big country house, looking after a dying woman. The surroundings are not sympathetic, the weather is awful, times are hard. When her patient dies, she drearily contemplates her future, how she will have to find a new job – she has no friends or family. But then a different possibility opens up for her…





SLIGHT SPOILER, THOUGH USED IN THE PUBLICITY FOR THE BOOK, AND COMES EARLY ON





The son of the dead woman, an Army Major wounded in WW2, asks her to marry him, and she accepts. He is apparently offering a platonic marriage for their mutual benefit. The lavender silk dress above is to be her wedding dress – she initially asks for black because of the recent death of his mother, but the shocked dress shop owner convinces her that that is not necessary.

Strange random events impinge on the plans, and we find out more and more about Coral’s past life, some of it quite murky. How exactly are things going to go wrong?

There is a grim, nervy atmosphere to the novel, and the reader is never sure where it is going next. But it is also very funny at times, and full of great descriptions and memorable characters and phrases.

One character has a room which looks like the bedroom of a dead boy, ‘left untouched in memory’.

The Major says of his soon-to-be-dead mother: ‘I don’t think she ever met a person she liked. Including my father of course. What a wretched woman. It’s all I can do to stop myself rushing upstairs and holding a pillow against her face.’

Later:
‘So, are you still a nurse?’ he asked.

As she was dressed in her nurse’s uniform, there could be little doubt as to her occupation, unless she had become theatrically inclined, but she let this idiocy of his pass.

The description of the wedding is hilarious, with a disastrous celebratory meal, a random difficult mother determined to sing a song, glasses too full to drink from, and a visit from the police. There are some wonderful conversations, funny and affecting and realistic all at the same time. And (it’s the law with books set in 1950) endless class differences and snobberies and shibboleths to catch Coral out, like the ‘pouf’ above. She is sometimes too blank a person, and it was difficult to know what to make of her – but this reader certainly wanted to know what would happen to her.

The book felt like a weird mashup of Barbara Pym and Sarah Waters, as if they had contributed alternate chapters.

I came across Coral Glynn on Simon Thomas’s Stuck in a Book blog (though it has taken me two years to catch up with him), and his review is highly recommended. I was inspired to track down a copy a) because I always like books that have the name of the female protagonist – there is something mysterious and inviting about them, but b) because I absolutely loved another book by Peter Cameron, the 2002 The City of Your Final Destination, which I read 15 years ago, long pre-blog. It is set in Uruguay in the household of a famous writer, and couldn’t be more different. I did like this one, though not as much, and Cameron is a marvellous writer: I would like to read something else by him.

I don’t think Coral Glynn was ever published in the UK, surprisingly given that it is set here.



Spot dress from Harper’s Bazaar fashion photos of the 1950s.



1949 dress from Clover Vintage

Comments

  1. This does sound like a very unusual book, Moira - almost bleak here and there, but with some wit, too. Not easy to pull off! And I can see what you mean about not being sure exactly what to make of Coral. She seems like person with some depths, perhaps, that you can't quite reach? It sounds as though there are some interesting insights into the class structure of the day, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Margot - I keep thinking about this book since reading it, which is always a good sign isn't it? Coral Glynn is a complex character, and that's always good in a book.

      Delete
  2. "The book felt like a weird mashup of Barbara Pym and Sarah Waters, as if they had contributed alternate chapters." Okay, that broke me up. I haven't laughed so hard in months, except for two days ago when I saw a picture on facebook--no, no point in describing it. You have to see it. It involves learning new skills and a teapot. It's making the rounds.

    Actually, this book--the writing style--sounds just my cup of tea. Must go find it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well thank you, we aim to entertain! I had a quick look to see if I could see the teapot but no look so far, I'm sure it will turn up. And would love to hear what you make of the book if you can find it.

      Delete
  3. A mash-up of Barbara Pym and Sarah Waters? How can I resist? Apart from the fact, of course, that I have piles of books waiting here to be read . . . Even lockdown hasn't made a dent . . .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I know, I AM getting through some old ones, but keep finding more books to read. Like so many of the good intentions that I had for lockdown, reducing the pile may not happen.

      Delete
  4. Oh yes, I love spots! And navy blue with white spots is the best. Whenever I find a navy blue dress or blouse with white spots I tend to buy it, disregarding the fact that blue really is not my colour. So after a while I give up and give it to my blonde, blue-eyed sister, who has a rather good collection of these now.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are right, there absolutely is something about navy with white spots. In fact last summer I bought a dress because of that pattern, and looking at it now am thinking the style really isn't me at all, I just was seduced by the spots... Perhaps your sister would like it 😃?

      Delete
  5. "[...] a platonic marriage for their mutual benefit. The lavender silk dress above is to be her wedding dress [...]"

    so a lavender marriage, then ?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lavender_marriage

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, that was a new one to me. How interesting! Now, I haven't read the book, but this of course makes me wonder if the dress is indeed a rather neat symbolic illustration of the marriage in question. That settles it. I'll have to order the book, together with "Mortmain Hall" by Martin Edwards, which I can't wait to read - or to encounter on this blog. I have a feeling it won't take very long.

      Delete
    2. Oh that is fascinating - thanks for the reference, it was new to me too. But I'm betting it was intentional, as Cameron such a careful writer and it fits in well with the plot. I love the idea that he put in something that most of his readers wouldn't get! (I'm guessing, if Birgitta and I are representative)

      Mortmain Hall will be coming....

      Delete
  6. Moira: Took abit of a look around the net and found this collection of polka dot dresses. Some lovely dresses in the collection - https://vintagedancer.com/vintage/polka-dot-dresses-retro-style-1920s-1960s/.Hope you are getting some nice spring weather.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bill, I am impressed but not surprised! You have a real talent for finding pictures. This is such a great assemblage of polka dots, I am bookmarking it now so I have a resource next time they come up. The weather is lovely here right now, long may it continue. Hope the same for you - we need something in these difficult times.

      Delete
  7. This does sound good and I would like to give it a try someday. Will have to wait and see if I want to add it to my many unread books. Looks like it is easily available at abebooks.com for a reasonable amount so I will probably go for it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's probably more available in US than UK Tracy, because I think never published her. It's only because I really like this author that I made the effort to find a copy.

      Delete
  8. Probably more you than me. The contents of the wallet are safe!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely not pushing this one in your direction!

      Delete
  9. "The book felt like a weird mashup of Barbara Pym and Sarah Waters, as if they had contributed alternate chapters." - what a brilliant description!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! And thanks for bringing it to my attention - I have never seen any mention of this book anywhere else but on your blog. It's difficult to judge how well-known Peter Cameron is.

      Delete

Post a comment