Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Camomile Lawn

Review of Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley.

Wartime London: blackouts, rationing, the City aflame. Augustus John spotted at the bar of the Royal Court, telephone calls restricted to three minutes apiece. Against this background a group of twelve main characters each undergo a loss of the varying states of innocence in which they began the war. One-legged Uncle Richard is freed of his anti-semitism and self-pity by the acquisition of a Jewish mistress and a new, hinged leg (its ppredecessor is used to poke the fire). His wife downs secateurs and cardigan for high-heels and furs and a love-affair of some compulsion. The younger set behave in like manner, aided by the fact that of five cousins only two share the same parents - the maximum of incestous permutation is allowed. A brace of young identical twins complete the circle.
Between romantic liasions they gather in London and in Cornwall to discuss the progress of war, the taking and exchange of lovers and, most of all, each other. They talk incessantly: in cars, trains and restaurants; over the kitchen table, the telephone and in bed. War is a great unifier and they remain on affectionate terms - coming together for a funeral some forty years later their tongues are still wagging.
There is as I have already eluded to, a chatty cast, Mary Wesley's dialogue is absolutely credible and, in parts, extremely funny - some scenes made me laugh out loud. The action leaps back and forwards in time without dislocating the narrative. Touches of Cornish dialect are used to good effect.
But there are weaknesses, chiefly when the conversation stops. The Moon, "an outrageous balloon" risis "red, gold then silver into a taffeta sky". Sultry Calypso reminisces on the clifftops: "Here where she stood Oliver had said 'I want to fuck you'." Elsewhere this word appears eight time in one sentence.
Nevertheless, The Camomile Lawn is a very funny book and the apparent frivolity of the discourse belies a sort of courage. Careless talk saves lives. Ivy Compton Burnett wrote: "We must use words as they are used or stand aside from life." Mary Wesley uses words very much as they are used.