Friday, April 26, 2019

You have no idea what you're missing if you haven't read Barbara Comyns: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead -- just bloody brilliant.

My introduction to the work of Barbara Comyns was her The Vet's Daughter, which I absolutely loved.   Like that book, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is disorienting, dark, and filled with small moments of rather wry, black humor that caused instant guilt feelings whenever a laugh escaped.  It is also an excellent read, one I went through twice and which I loved even more the second time. 
Dorothy Project, 2015
originally published 1954
193 pp

The back-cover blurb says that this book is "the story of the Willoweed family and the English village in which they live," which is true on one level, but it goes well beyond your standard English-village novel into something completely different.  Graham Greene is also noted on the cover as saying that Comyns has the "innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or most ominous occurrence." This statement came from a review of her The Vet's Daughter, but it also applies here. 

 Published in 1954, The story is set "Summer about seventy years ago," in Warwickshire,  and its title reflects the passing of time and a look back,  as captured in Longfellow's "The Fire of Drift-wood"

"We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead."

The book begins almost whimsically as this small English village has just suffered a flooding of the river that runs through it at the beginning of June.   Ducks are swimming through the windows of a drawing room of the house belonging to the Willoweed family, "quacking their approval," while the maids laugh while chasing a "floating basket filled with eggs" and a child is gleefully  "floating a fleet of toy boats" in the dining room of a flooded house.  It isn't long, however,  until what seems to be cute and cozy makes a change into something darker and foreboding as the author describes the "sorrowful things under the blazing sun and blue sky," found in the flood's aftermath, including dead animals and 

"A passing pig squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding, "
thrashing about in the river as some men in a boat were trying to rescue it.  And then there's this:
"As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only the cocks alive. The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered with water." They squarked a little, but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared." 
It won't be until later that the significance of these scenes becomes apparent, but in this book the natural and human worlds mirror each other, and the reader starts to notice that like this mirroring, there are also dual meanings to be had here.  

Just briefly, because I don't want to spoil things,  while the story looks back on this summer and the inhabitants of this village  after the flood,  it takes us into the home of the Willoweeds, run by the family matriarch Grandmother Willoweed, on whom her son Ebin and his three children Emma, Hattie and Dennis are utterly dependent.   Ebin had returned to the family home after he'd been dismissed from his job at a newspaper; his wife had died while giving birth to their third child.  He feels himself to be "humiliated and a failure in everything he undertook," since it had been ten years since he'd earned any money from his writing -- he has a stack of "half-completed, mouse-nibbled manuscripts" just sitting in his room.   He's a neglectful parent, focusing mainly on himself and his bitterness, leaving the oldest daughter Emma to pick up the slack to provide the attention and needed security to her siblings.   Ebin is greatly "cowed" by his mother, who runs a most austere household in a tyrannical way, and Comyns' descriptions of her fall anywhere between bird and reptile, at one point revealing her as having a "forked tongue."  Comyns' use of animal attributes to describe the humans (and vice versa) here is not only inescapable but also compelling, almost as if the author is making the statement that it's often difficult to discern between the two.  It is only after the flooding subsides that something happens to cause a  series of "gruesome deaths" that "plagues the villagers,"  to the point where Ebin, whose self-interest knows no bounds,  notes in a newly-penned newspaper article, 
"The inhabitants of this remote village are asking each other 'Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?"
This "fatal madness," it seems to me, describes not only the effects of the strange plague moving throughout the village, but also provides a rather chilling insight into  the darker aspects of human nature.  

 I know that sounds rather cryptic, but I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who may wish to read the novel.  Let me just say that you can't skim over any parts of this book because everything, no matter how minor it may seem, has meaning here.   This is a novel that mingles and mirrors both landscape and people, the natural world and the "civilized" world.  And while it's dark and at times disorienting, it's not all bleak -- while there are a number of people here who seem to thrive on their own self-interest and their own needs,  compassion and caring are to be found in this village as well. 

Barbara Comyns is a brilliant writer, at least based on what I've seen here and in her The Vet's Daughter, and it is a true shame that she is not more well known and her works underappreciated.  Seriously, you don't know what you're missing if you haven't read her books.  I can recommend this book with no hesitation.