Deprived of family after her parents and her brother’s unexpected death, young Coral Glynn has failed to develop any kind of attachment to anyone. Left with no home and an uncertain future, she trains as a nurse, specializing in palliative care which she undertakes with self-reserve and mute compliance at Hart House in Harrington, Leicester.
England in the 1950s is struggling through the aftereffects of the War; rationing is still in force and everything is still “topsy-turvy.” “Blame it on Mr. Hitler,” says Hart House’s officious cook and housekeeper, Mrs. Prence. Matters of sex and homosexuality are most often swept under the carpet, and unhappily married couples usually have some sort of arrangement, forced to carry on with their private cruelties while presenting a civilized veneer to the world.
While the burdens of the Hart household fall upon Mrs. Prence, who bears them with a grudging dutifulness, Coral--a product of her time, but not really fitting into it--attends to the daily needs of the very ill and impossibly difficult Mrs. Edith Hart, with only Mrs. Hart’s son, the Major Clement Hart, for company. Severely burned in the war and now disfigured, solitary Clement relies on a cane to walk. His only real friend is Robin Lofting, whom he meets every Thursday for a drink or two at the local pub, The Black Swan.
A series of missteps and misunderstandings drive the novel, the characters observing a strained and inexorably lengthening silence. Tired and disconsolate, all Coral has is the little room on the attic floor, but when Mrs. Hart finally expires, there’s an unexpected offer of marriage, and she begins to see Clement in an new light: “his features, always a bit unfocused fine are now tuned to a more appealing clarity.”
The newly liberated Clement realizes that he has very warm and tender feelings for her.
Is this master/nurse relationship a basis for a marriage and for love? Before Coral makes any plans, Clement is sure she will have a better life with him than alone. While Mrs. Prence accepts the news of Coral’s engagement with surprising, almost suspicious equanimity, not so closeted Robin, who has spent years painfully lusting after Clement and ends up challenging his friend over the more sexual aspects of marriage. Exploring the gaping abyss between intimacy and reality, the author has Coral stuck somewhere in between both men as she tries to piece together who she is and where she belongs.
A series of dramatic revelations: forced intercourse, an unexpected pregnancy, a murder, and a series of hidden letters pile atop awkward scenes that in turn become a series of “awful, stupid muddles.”
Suspecting her of participating in foul play, the local police inspector has evidence to arrest Coral.
Somewhat at a loss to defend herself, she finds her life fortuitously blindsided by the stupidity and prejudices of men.
Capturing the stiff morality of a bygone time, Cameron's characters' petty prejudices and frustrations are a product of an era. There’s a feeling of emptiness, of being alone and a sense of "folding up and shutting down." Coral’s efforts to find happiness and to conquer society’s lingering, toxic deceptions ultimately drive the author’s elegiac, finely-wrought tale.