‘It is August of 1939 and five cousins have gathered at their aunt’s house in Cornwall for their annual summer holidays.’ Nineteen year old Oliver has just returned from fighting in The Spanish Civil War. He is desperately in love with the beautiful Calypso who claims she is incapable of love. Brother and sister, Walter and Polly have travelled with them for the annual ‘Terror Run’ and orphaned Sophy make up the group. By the end of the evening war has been declared and the lives of the five cousins are dramatically changed. The Camomile Lawn follows the five cousins – and some extended family and friends – throughout the war years and gives a glimpse into how they survived in such turbulent times. The novel takes the reader beyond the war years and into the cousins’ old age, exploring their loves and losses with the ever present backdrop of the camomile lawn and the hope, innocence and lost youth it represents.
The Camomile Lawn was recommended to me by a work colleague months ago and I always remembered the title but never quite got round to searching out a copy. With my recent obsession with visiting my local library I decided I needed to order a copy in and finally tick this book off my list. I am so glad I did; I know I say this all the time, but I LOVED The Camomile Lawn . Within pages I was laughing out loud, mainly at the somewhat blasé comments of the cousins towards their Uncle Richard’s lost limb, an injury of the First World War. I quickly warmed to the characters and genuinely cared about their lives and wanted to find out what happened to them and how the war affected them. It was interesting to see how their lives intertwined and how their relationships with one another developed and disintegrated in the decades following.
A lot of the narrative is centred on the war years and it was lovely to read about the freedom this brought some characters, such as Helena who found the opportunity to leave Richard in Cornwall and have a life in London, admittedly as the mistress of a Jewish composer who had fled to England with his wife shortly before the outbreak of war, leaving their son to the fates of a concentration camp. There are some sections set in the present day – well the 1980s – and these create a more mysterious element to the narrative as you wonder how each character came to this point in their life and who will turn up at the final event that draws them altogether: a funeral.
My favourite themes running through the novel centres on the sexual liberation/freedom that seems to arrive with the onset of war. This is not a new concept when reading war literature but I loved how the illicit – and often somewhat incestuous – were almost hinted at and not thrown in your face, as some more recent books/films tend to do. The casual way some of them are mentioned almost reflects the casual attitude some had towards sex and relationships during the war. I always feel I fall in to a trap when reading some war literature, especially novels that are written decades after the war, as I get this romanticised view of the war and the freedom and the excitement of the bombings and air raids that came with it. I am fully aware that this is a skewed view and not 100% reflective of reality, but some authors make it sound so glamorous and exciting. There are some strings to the plot that do explore the horrific side of the war, however these are quickly brushed over, perhaps mirroring the ‘carry on with little fuss’ style attitude that was arguably needed to have the strength to go on and keep some element of humour.
The Camomile Lawn is a fantastic read and I would certainly recommend it. In keeping with my reading habits of this year I have enjoyed this novel and the escapism from reality it brought me. It is a lovely novel and I am keen to discover more of Mary Wesley’s work in my local library.