There’s a darkly funny song by Ben Folds called “You Don’t Know Me At All.” In it, a couple has the realization that they have absolutely nothing to say to each other and it’s not because they know each other so deeply that words aren’t necessary. It’s because they have no idea what the other is thinking, nor do they really care much anymore. Just think about that couple you see in a restaurant who eats in radio silence.
Many novels have explored the notion of knowing another person. What does it mean to know someone, and is it ever really possible? Novels that use an omniscient narrator allow us to know everything that goes on in characters’ minds. But those using a limited point of view put us as readers on equal footing with the characters. We are left to wonder about characters’ behaviors and construct meaning from them. These types of novels can be quietly suspenseful and are often described as moody, gripping, psychological, or haunting.
I recently read a wonderfully strange slip of a novel titled Coral Glynn. This is the latest novel by Peter Cameron, who is probably best known for his young adult novel Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. Coral Glynn is a very different kind of novel; Cameron sites midcentury British works by authors like Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor as influences. As I read it, I felt as though I were reading a Gothic novel, too. It particularly brought to mind Jane Eyre and The Turn of The Screw—both of which brilliantly play with the question of knowing others and one’s self.
Coral Glynn begins in the rainy spring of 1950 in northern England. The title character is a private nurse and has come to the Hart estate to care for an elderly Edith Hart who is dying. Mrs. Hart’s son, Clement, is a war-torn, conflicted, and socially awkward man who is fearful of becoming a prisoner of his isolation. As Coral’s stay in the house progresses, Clement begins to wonder if she might be a way of escaping his fate—if it would be possible to save himself by marrying her. He discusses these thoughts with his friend Robin Lofting, who encourages him to marry.
Coral Glynn, while not at all a plot-driven book, is definitely a page-turner. It’s about what is below the action--the subterfuge that characters engage in to avoid unpleasant or revealing conversations. In Coral Glynn the unspoken is as important as the spoken. The characters are mysteries to each other and often themselves; they remain mysteries even to the reader. Coral says it best, “How was it ever possible to know who, or what, people really were? They were all like coins, with two sides, or dice, with six” (142). What are some of your favorite novels like this?