Mary Wesley has been on my ‘to read’ list for a very long time. I knew that she didn’t have her first book published until she was in her 70’s and that she’d had amazing success after this, her ‘breakthrough’ novel. (Written after the death of her second husband left her destitute.) So when I saw it on the library shelf last month I grabbed it.
Written in 1983, the language is obviously not quite contemporary, but see past that and you will find a beautifully crafted novel, full of surprises, twists and turns, which will keep you guessing until the end. The novel begins in 1939, as World War 11 is about to break out. The setting is a house in Cornwall, high above the sea, that possesses a fragrant camomile lawn in the garden. It is this that provides the unusual title. There are quite a number of main characters who interact in many and varied ways, producing some convoluted and often illicit, relationships: five cousins (Calypso, Walter, Polly, Oliver and Sophy), their Aunt and Uncle (Richard and Helena), identical boy twins, sons of the local Rector, who become friends with the cousins, and a husband and wife – Austrian Jewish Refugees who assume an increasingly important role as the story unfolds.
Wesley drew on her own childhood and work experiences in building some of the characterisations – like ‘Polly’, she worked for military intelligence during the war.
As well as being evocative of the time, and full of humour, this is one very sexy, naughty, book, and this is all the more amazing given that there is not a single description of ‘the act’. Somehow Wesley, with her mature, crisp and uncensored imagination pulls off this difficult feat. She paints a very vivid picture of life in wartime, and the loosening of moral codes that occurs as a result of stress, opportunity, or perhaps a sense of ‘well, we may not be here tomorrow so why ever not?’
By the end of the book, those characters who are still alive are 40 years older and through them, centered around attendance at a funeral, we find out some of the back-story, and the answers to the many questions we were still asking of the author and hoping wold not be left unanswered before the final page was turned. This book is a great read, and for me, as a professional writer, a study in clean dialogue, not weighed down by all the superfluous ‘she said/he wondered/I asked myself and similar phrases that litter so many novels today.
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