‘Drowning in the North Atlantic three weeks after his leave, Walter had a vivid recollection of Sophy weeping in the train. He opened his mouth to shout for Polly and drowned that much quicker.’
As this extraordinary short passage shows, The Camomile Lawn is not a soft touch.
A story about war, from the perspective of the home front, it unfolds across two time periods: World War Two and the early 1980s (when Mary Wesley actually wrote the novel). Events are presented in a linear fashion, starting with five cousins on holiday in Cornwall in August 1939 – the last summer before the war – and moving to London during the Blitz, punctuated by reminiscences from two car journeys towards Cornwall, and a funeral, in 1984.
We return periodically to the speeding cars to hear the memories of two key female characters (now elderly), who comment on – and, in some cases, subtly undermine – what we have already read. Both occasionally laugh, or smile, at a remembered joke or experience: the past is ever-present.
Wesley is utterly unsentimental, which serves the reader well: for instance, Helena thinks the beautiful Calypso’s stroke is a good thing because it has made her face “human, lopsided”. Every character is laid bare for their vanity, selfishness – and even occasional generosity. This is how we behave when we think there’s no-one watching.
The war is a time of grief, tragedy, farce, fear – and tremendous, unforgettable excitement. Old personalities are shuffled off, new alliances formed, fresh opportunities taken:
‘The Jews may be enslaved, thought Helena, powdering her nose, but I am now free of boring, boring Richard.’
Death is ever-present. Consequently, perhaps, there is a lot of sex, – although all of it off-page, as it were. The author is psychologically acute: estranged partners have sudden – fleeting, realistic – moments of affectionate companionship.
Teenage Sophy, unhappily alone at boarding school, begins to think of her Uncle Richard (who lost a leg in World War One), hundreds of miles away in her childhood home in Cornwall, with fondness: ‘She forgot in her loneliness the revulsion she felt for his dismemberment, her horror of his smelly breath.’ Wesley is seen, utterly wrongly, as cosy. But she’s funny and spares no-one.