‘Coral Glynn’ an understated human drama

“Coral Glynn” by Peter Cameron (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 210 pages, $24)

In this age of oversharing, paparazzi and reality TV, it’s easy to forget that for most of human culture, many things were simply Not Talked About. Unstated and understood. Except “understood” isn’t always understood, even by oneself, or it’s understood differently by different people.

There’s plenty unstated — and much misunderstood — in “Coral Glynn,” a delicate, deliberate story whose quiet surface belies its complex depths.

The novel begins in 1950, when Coral Glynn, a nurse, is hired to care for an elderly woman in the last throes of illness. The house is bleak, but because of its inhabitants, not its surroundings. The dying woman’s son, Clement, disfigured in the war, has written off the possibility of a wife for himself and doesn’t have much contact with his mother. The housekeeper is surreptitiously hostile toward Coral — but nice to her face.

After what could be called a whirlwind courtship or romance if there had been a courtship or romance, and despite barely knowing each other, Clement and Coral decide to marry.

Lacking friends and family of her own, Coral is helped in her wedding preparations by kindhearted, chattering Dolly, the wife of Clement’s dear friend Robin. But a strange turn of events upends Coral and Clement’s hasty plans and sends the story in an entirely new direction.

Coral herself goes through most of this at a distance, almost removed from the proceedings, swept along for want of any desire to do otherwise. She appears passive, reactive, but she takes charge of her situation when she has to. It’s as if she’s afraid to feel too much: “Coral hoped that by sitting silently and stilly on the bed, she might not disturb the diorama she felt she was in, for she did not want anything else to happen to her ever again. She could not imagine anything that was not bad or disappointing happening.”

Despite her fears, things do happen to her, and they are not all bad or disappointing.

“Coral Glynn” moves in unpredictable ways, which makes it — despite its cool, detached style — an urgent piece of storytelling. The understated tone is reminiscent of Barbara Pym; the oblique non-communication brings to mind Ian McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach,” though the characters don’t suffer such a devastating personal disaster. Coral may not have had “a proper life,” but she manages to find a good one for herself anyway.