It’s many years since I first read The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley. I remember liking it, and that one of the characters is called Calypso, but nothing else. So it was with delight that I read the wartime story of Calypso and her four cousins – Oliver, Polly, Walter and Sophy. It renewed my intention to re-read all Wesley’s novels.
The story is enrichened by the mode of telling. It starts in Cornwall in the summer of 1939 as the cousins of assorted ages gather for what will be the last time. There is a poignancy hanging in the air as the run their ritual race, The Terror Run, along the clifftop path, joined by their neighbours, the Floyer twins.
The cousins are the children of the three Cuthbertson siblings – we see the parents only fleetingly, if not at all – but they are gathered at their Uncle Richard’s house and picnic on the camomile lawn. What follows are the piecemeal stories of individuals and how they overlap with each other as the war progresses. Overlaid, are short passages from the Eighties as they travel independently to Cornwall for a funeral. Drawn into the cousins’ stories are their neighbours, in Cornwall and London, wartime acquaintances, lovers, and refugees Max and Monika. Amidst the bombings, the rationing and the worries about loved ones fighting, Wesley tells a story of a family both united and separated, as individuals strike out on their own, liberated by wartime urgencies. There are affairs, unexpected babies, hints of underage sex, all without accusations of blame or betrayal. Each makes assumptions about the others, assumptions the reader may know are misplaced given we are privileged to see into the minds of each cousin, and sometimes assumptions which are proven right or wrong only at the very end of the novel.
Paths cross, diverge and cross again. Not everyone is nice, not everyone is honest. They are people getting through the war, trying to keep things together; some turn to drink and partying, one keeps guinea pigs, most feel emboldened by the openings presented to them by war. And all the time, fear lurks in the pit of their stomachs. And through it all, the house in Cornwall and memories of that last party on the camomile lawn, remind us of pre-war normality. At a time when ‘normal’ ceases to exist.
Very different from other wartime novels. Now a classic.
Read the First Paragraph of The Camomile Lawn here.
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If you like this, try:-
‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
‘Half of the Human Race’ by Antony Quinn
‘My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You’ by Louisa Young
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