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The Camomile Lawn Paperback – 1 Jun 2006

4.4 out of 5 stars 73 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; New Ed edition (1 Jun. 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0099499142
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099499145
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (73 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 57,179 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

Review

"Provides equal does of sex and repression in war-torn Britain with panache and pace" (The Times)

"A very good book indeed...rich in detail, careful and subtle in observation, mature in judgement" (Susan Hill)

"Extraordinarily accomplished and fast-moving" (Financial Times)

"It's hard to overpraise Mary Wesley's novel...so tingling and spry with life that put a mirror to the book and I'll almost swear it will mist over with the breath of the five young cousins" (The Times)

Book Description

A vivid and lively picture of wartime London and Cornwall as seen through the eyes of five cousins.

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4.4 out of 5 stars
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Format: Kindle Edition
Mary Wesley (1912-2002) wrote her first adult novel at the age of 71. Comparisons ARE odious and to compare apples with stepladders is clearly a daft activity, but, still, having finished reading Wesley's best known book, The Camomile Lawn, set mainly in amoral times on the home front during the Second World War, and currently reading, with not a little irritation, Bret Easton Ellis' The Rules of Attraction, about a group of amoral varsity students, I found myself muttering, in bored irritation `Should have waited till you were 70, chum'

Wesley is darkly comedic, stylish, sharply observed and extremely witty. I had the feeling I sometimes get at the theatre, when the curtain rises to reveal the set, and at the speaking of the first line of dialogue, you instantly know `sure-fire, everyone knows what they are doing here, I'm in for a great couple of hours, and can let myself be guided by the play and the performers'

I had that feeling with the sharp, arresting beginning of The Camomile Lawn

`Helena Cuthbertson picked up the crumpled Times by her sleeping husband and went to the flower room to iron it'

In a single sentence of fabulous show-not-tell we know the class of the characters, can detect a relationship of dissatisfaction, and know this will be a barbed and witty comedy. (It was the detail of `the flower room', somehow which did it for me - the precise absurdity of that image which spelt the wit and the comedy)

Her book is set on the eve of war being declared. The central characters are a middle aged couple with a complicated set of nephews and nieces in their late teens, the teenage sons of neighbours, and two Jewish refugees staying with those neighbours.
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The book opens on the very eve of the Second World War, with five cousins on holiday at the Cornish home of their Aunt Helena and Uncle Richard (all upper middle class). Four of them (two young women, two young men) are aged 19 or 20, the fifth is Sophy who is just ten. There are also the twin sons of the local rector, who has also taken in a Jewish refugee couple, Max and Monika, from Austria. The novel traces the lives principally of these eleven characters during the war, much of it set in London. Under the intensity of life in war-time, the young people lose any conventional inhibitions they might possibly have had under other circumstances. (I say `possibly', because uninhibited behaviour had been the mark of certain young socialites in the 1920s). One can hardly keep track of the sexual permutations and combinations between them. Even middle-aged Uncle Richard and Aunt Helena have unorthodox liaisons. It is all rather rackety, and in the first half of the novel one feels the characters are driven more by sensuality than by anything deeper, with emotions only superficially engaged. But in the end they do become more deeply involved emotionally; some psychological complexities then emerge (especially for Helena and Calypso) and the reader's sympathies slowly become engaged with them. Most of the story is told as a war-time narrative; but at the end of some chapters we move on forty years or so, when those who are then still alive are converging for Max's funeral and look back on those years; so we learn something about what has happened to them since.

Some of the characters come more alive than others in the book. Especially successful, I think, is the portrait of Uncle Richard, for the most part just avoiding caricature.
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Mary Wesley captures the released freedoms created by World War Two in the spirited characters of Helena (older generation), Calypso and Polly (younger generation) and their husbands, lovers, and brothers through the tumultuous and world-upside-down rigours of wartime. Beginning with a vague mystery in the peaceful pre-war summer in Cornwall, the camomile lawn of the family retreat becomes a symbol of permanence and reassurance when everything else is disintegrating. The youngest family member, Sophy, central to the plot, is sent away to school but runs away to join Polly in London.

Mary Wesley bases much of her story on personal experience, particularly in her love of Cornwall where she spent her own childhood summers, and not a few of her characters are based on people she knew. Her lively narrative, filled with good, succinct dialogue, through which the story is mainly told, must have been fed with her own memories, and is immediate, realistic, and believable. The reader is swept into the affairs of Helena, Calypso, and Polly with an enthusiasm and, given that Mary Welsey must have been quite elderly by the time she wrote this novel, but her writing is sharp, witty, and convincing. She begins the novel with the funeral of one of the main characters, and tells the story in a series of long flashbacks interspersed with returns to the funeral, the people of the novel now old and looking back. This works well, and keeps the reader informed and aware.

I enjoyed this novel very much when I first read it years ago and, returning to it recently (2013), I enjoyed it just as much. I then watched the TV series which was beautifully done, accurately adapting the novel, getting the characters right, and using as much of Wesley's original dialogue as possible. I recommend both.
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