CORAL GLYNN, by Peter Cameron. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 210 pp., $24.
Where would English literature be without the English country house? Mansfield Park, Thornfield Hall, Howards End, Manderley, Brideshead -- all memorable settings for rich social dramas or dark gothic tales. In recent years, novelists such as Ian McEwan ("Atonement"), Sarah Waters ("The Little Stranger") and Alan Hollinghurst ("The Stranger's Child") have played variations on the theme.
Now comes Peter Cameron, an American novelist ("The Weekend," "Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You") who grew up partly in London and seems to have absorbed the atmospherics of the country-house novel by osmosis. Cameron's new book, "Coral Glynn," opens with the arrival of the title character, a mousy young woman, at a gloomy Leicestershire mansion -- Hart House -- in the wet spring of 1950. The "air was damp," Cameron warns us, "and considered bad."
Coral is an orphan (another trope of English lit) who works as a private nurse. She has come to care for the dying Mrs. Hart, but the old lady expires almost immediately and Coral finds herself proposed to, quite unexpectedly, by Major Hart, middle-aged son of the house and wounded veteran of the Second World War. (What Coral doesn't know is that Major Hart's possessive boyhood friend, Robin Lofting, is a former lover.) Lurking in the halls, as there must be in such a novel, is an old housekeeper, Mrs. Prence, who serves Hart House with a "grudging dutifulness" and eyes this newcomer with suspicion.
Things take a decidedly macabre turn when Coral wanders into the woods of the estate and comes across a small boy who has bound a little girl and is pelting her with pine cones -- a cruel scene that disconcerts Coral. The discovery of a young girl's body in the forest not long after suggests "Coral Glynn" will turn into a mystery, but Cameron has other plans for his protagonist, whisking her off to London and -- what else? -- a dreary boardinghouse.
What is Cameron up to here? He has said he was inspired by midcentury British women writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, but in no way does "Coral Glynn" read like a smug 21st-century metafiction. Indeed, the pleasures of this novel are its lovely, restrained writing and its quiet power to keep the reader turning pages. What happens next? We never entirely warm to this peculiar, passive heroine and her repressed major, but there's something delicious about their odd, terribly English story.