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.
What 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.