Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns

15 August, 2011

Simon T kindly sent me this book some time ago because I think he felt I needed to read more books of quality, heh. Barbara Comyns is an author I’ve not come across before and I’d only heard of her when Simon T did a group read of The Vet’s Daughter and I read all the raving reviews on other blogs. Described as gothic, disturbing, twisted, I was naturally keen to try some of Comyns’ writing. I was in the mood for something dark following a restless week here in London, but also something brilliant that would take me out of my gloom. So I picked up Who was Changed and Who was Dead from my shelf. It’s also rather short at only 146 pages.

And I am completely bowled over by Comyns’ brilliance. Her imagery, her dark, dark style studded with flashes of cutting humour, the utter gothic-ness of this little tale. Yet it isn’t little because she creates this musty, smelly, wet world, a claustrophobic village in which the locus, Willoweed House, is ruled by the iron fist of the wealthy tyrant Grandmother Willoweed, her loser of a son Ebin with his three children, Emma, Dennis and dark-skinned Hattie, their two maids, sisters Nora and Eunice and the gardener Old Ives. We first encounter them after a flood where the nearby river has overflowed into the house, drowning animals and seeping into all corners. As the waters ebb, we are shown a cross-section of a typical English village, and soon with the death of Dr. Hatt’s wife which almost acts like a catalyst, the villagers are seized by a plague-like sickness which results in many deaths. All throughout you are witness to Ebin’s selfishness, Emma’s wish to marry and leave her home and Grandmother Willoweed’s dramatic rule. As the deaths hit closer to home, and smaller domestic troubles arise, we see tragedy strike and a glimmer of hope.

That’s pretty dramatic but it’s a dramatic story told in under 150 pages, almost perfectly rendered. Apparently Who was Changed and Who was Dead was banned in Ireland for being too grotesque. There isn’t really much that modern readers would find obscene here, although it’s pretty graphic in the way it deals with death.

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.

There’s also a lot of dark humour, especially in the exchanges between Grandmother Willoweed and Old Ives:

They always exchanged birthday gifts, and each was determined to outlive the other. Ives was a year older than Grandmother Willoweed, but considered he had the better chance of survival: He though she would die from overeating. The grandmother thanked him for his presents and said, “Ah, Ives, I’m afraid, when it’s your birthday, I shall be bringing flowers for your grave.”

The old man replied, “Do you think so, Ma’am? Well, I know you will have stuffed yourself until you be choked by the time your next birthday comes round.”

There are echoes of Victorian gothic novels here without the endless descriptions (I give plus points for this even though I do like Victorian novels), doctors are figures of authority and respectability, there’s a baker with his adulterous wife who puts all his love and dreams into the loaves he produces with unforeseen results and an immoral journalist. It’s almost fairy-tale like in its telling.

And we have Grandmother Willoweed, ‘a dreadful old bird, enormous and horrifying, all weighted down by jet and black plumes and smelling, not of camphor, but chlorodyne’ who makes an occasion of going to funerals and with neighbours who says things like, “Mind you, I love a beautiful corpse as much as anyone; but there is something about a suicide, especially one with his throat cut!”

It’s dark, funny, beautiful and people get their comeuppance. As you can probably tell, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and look forward to reading more by Barbara Comyns. Simon T, you have converted me!

8 Responses to “Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns”

  1. Oh wow, I love the sound of this!! Bravo Simon T and his mission to get you to read books of quality! 😉 (don’t you dare stop reading crime fic and the like – I rely on you for good recommendations!)

    This sounds right up my street – victorian, gothic, humour, dead people. What’s not to love??

  2. “And I am completely bowled over by Comyns’ brilliance.”
    That’s exactly how I felt at my first “exposure” too.
    It took me years to return to her work…but then I felt exactly the same thrill.
    So bizarrely unsettling AND satisfying.

  3. stujallen Says:

    a new name to me ,I don’t read enough female writers I always feel ,I do love the virago covers ,all the best stu

  4. Violet Says:

    I’ve only read “Our Spoons Came From Woolworths”, which was her second published novel and is absolutely delicious. I will have to check this one out!

  5. sakura Says:

    Boof: It’s really brilliant, I can’t believe I hadn’t read anything by Comyns before. So do give her a try. I don’t think I can stop reading mysteries – it’s in my blood.

    BuriedinPrint: Yes, it IS unsettling yet satisfying. That’s quite rare in books. I just felt her story was complete. It’s good to hear you felt that about her other books too.

    Stu: I don’t know whether I read more books by men or women as I’ve never really thought much about it. Probably a good mixture. I should really check, shouldn’t I?

    Violet: That’s one title I’ve been curious about for a while but never managed to get to. I think this is spurring me on to read more by her. Sooner rather than later, I hope.

  6. Simon T Says:

    Only just spotted this, which appeared while I was on holiday – how wonderful that you read it, and even more wonderful that you loved it! What a brilliant review, too – really makes me want to go straight home and start a re-read. Who Was Changed is my favourite Comyns novel of the (quick count) eight I’ve read, but The Vet’s Daughter is a close second. Our Spoons is one of my least favourite, but I did read it some years before I read the others, and perhaps I’d appreciate it more now.

    And I’m sure I never said anything about books of quality, Sakura! 😉

    • sakura Says:

      That means I should really check out The Vet’s Daughter next! But thank you for bringing Comyns to my attention:)

      Ha ha, you’re too polite to say anything of the sort, Simon!

  7. jean little Says:

    Barbara Comyns is my favourite author. I have all of her novels except ‘Out of the red, into the blue.’ Try ‘The Juniper Tree,’ It’s a bit dark and surreal – like a Grimms fairy tale, but for grown ups.

    Whenever I feel a bit down in the dumps, I pick up a Barbara Comyns novel, and sure enough, it cheers me up.

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