Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley

untitledWhat I love about The Camomile Lawn is how it challenges our perceptions. When we look back at the 1940s, we make certain assumptions about the way people behaved and The Camomile Lawn totally blows those assumptions out of the water.

The story begins in 1939, the last summer before the war, when a group of cousins gather for one last time in Cornwall. There is Oliver, in love with his beautiful by mercenary cousin Calypso, devoted brother and sister Polly and Walter and, youngest of the lot, Sophie. They are joined by their aunt and uncle, the local twins, David and Paul and Jewish refugees Monika and Max. The book also regularly cuts to decades later, when the characters are attending a funeral.

Over the course of the war, these characters are tangled up and torn apart. Adultery is committed in an almost casual, everyday way. There are no wild rows about who has slept with you and very few accusations are thrown about. Social taboos – particularly Polly’s situation – are approached in such a matter-of-fact way, it’s almost breath-taking. In the world of The Camomile Lawn, life is grasped firmly with both hands and people are left to conduct their own lives. Whether this is anymore accurate than other books set in the era I cannot say, but it certainly made a refreshing change.

Wesley is no sentimentalist, she doesn’t linger or manipulate the heartstrings. I found this a little chilly at times – I’m quite fond of having my heartstrings tugged – but ultimately it works. The characters are determined to live in spite of the war, so a certain detachment in the writing somehow becomes poignant.

I love books that have a large cast of characters and cover several years, but I did find that, due to the length of the book, I didn’t get the level of detail I craved. It’s a sign of how much I enjoyed the book that I wanted more. But Wesley is a clever writer who leaves a lot to the imagination, so much so that this is definitely a book that lingers in the mind. I defy anyone not to play that ending over and over in their heads!

Vintage, 2006. ISBN-10: 0099499142 . 336pp.

4 comments on “The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley

  1. David
    October 3, 2011

    Mary Wesley, remarkably, was aged 72 when she produced this, her best-known but by no means only literary endeavour.

    Her biography is titled ‘wild mary’ !

    She really does illustrate how the war so deeply affected and fundamentally changed the lives and morals and attitudes of all those who lived through it.

    I just missed it myself, but was a baby boomer result of it – my dad pre war had been an apprentice motor mechanic but ended up in charge of keeping fleets of bomber planes flying at a wartime airbase far away from his home, where he met up with my mother who lived in a nearby village.

    So, to me, the book provides a fascinating insight into their situation then.

  2. John
    October 3, 2011

    What a good review of a popular book! Literary snobbery aside, it is written in a way which makes many readers take an interest in what will happen. Social histories of the war confirm that behaviour did not suddenly or automatically become more moral when war broke out. Department stores were looted after bombing raids and understandably so in some cases. Given Britain’s history as an imperial power, you could argue that we have always been a nation of looters. Many thanks for reminding me of this book in an illuminating way. John.

  3. Jackie
    October 3, 2011

    Your description makes this book sound similar to one of Joanna Trollope, whose books I enjoy. And now you’ve got us curious about that ending! This seems like a slightly different angle to the early war years & it would be interesting seeing how the individual stories turn out.

  4. Nikki
    October 4, 2011

    I’m so pleased that two of the comments are from men. I think this sort of novel can be assumed to be a feminine novel, but it really isn’t. Wesley’s writing is tough and unsentimental, without being at all cold. Glad to find some other fans!

    Jackie, I think you’d enjoy it. And I’m always interested in people’s take on the ending!

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