Tuesday, October 2, 2018
another hidden treasure discovered on the shelves: The Vet's Daughter, by Barbara Comyns
NYRB Classics, 2003
I've been sitting here trying to think of ways to describe this book, and no matter what I write, it seems that nothing I can say can give it the justice it deserves. It's one of the rare few novels that left me sitting in my chair unable to move for a while, unable to stop thinking, and it followed me on into the rest of my day. While I was completely absorbed in this story, I was even more impressed and carried away because of the writing. It is, in a word, brilliant.
The vet's daughter is young Alice Rowlands, seventeen, and she lives in a household completely dominated by her father. It takes no time at all to discover that there is something utterly monstrous about this man, who, when given animals to be put down, sells them instead to the vivisectionist. He has always been a cruel man, but the disappointment he'd suffered upon buying what was to supposed to have been a "flourishing practice" along with a "commodious, well-furnished house" only to discover it was nothing of the sort seems to have scarred him for life. His frustrations are taken out on his wife and daughter -- his wife is timid, looks "scared," and is afraid to speak in his presence; she eventually falls ill and even then tries to hide her illness from her husband. Alice is treated much more like a servant than a daughter, sometimes subjected to cruel treatment at his hands, and mainly ignored. Life is bad enough for Alice, but when her mother dies and is replaced three weeks later by a barmaid ("a strumpet if ever there was one"), things move from bad to worse. Somehow though, Alice discovers something within herself that allows her to detach from it all, a power that manifests at her lowest moments.
At this juncture, just before Alice is about to escape from the tyranny of her father and his mistress, we move into the world of the strange. All along, Comyns writes so believably, eloquently mixing the mundane with the horrific so that when we get to the point of Alice's discovery, what happens now seems no stranger or any less plausible than anything in this novel so far. Alice is so trapped in her world that her newly-found ability makes sense as way to escape for a while, or to detach herself from her situation, even if only for a short time.
The Vet's Daughter is bleak, sad, and difficult to read emotionally, but at the same time it is hauntingly beautiful. The story told here is one of overwhelming loneliness and powerlessness, the stuff of many a novel, but recounted in a unique way that sets this book apart from others with the same themes. Not one word of the author's exceptional writing is wasted here -- she has this knack of not only making the horrific seem normal but also of turning the implausible into something believable in the world that her main character inhabits.
I can't recommend this book highly enough or offer enough superlatives about it. It won't be for everyone, especially those people who insist on strict realism in their reading, but for it is perfect for readers who want a great combination of captivating story and superb writing. This is my first book by Barbara Comyns but far from the last.