The opening scene of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954) seems almost biblical, but in this bible there are a few missing books. It is as if the reader has stumbled, disoriented, into the middle of the story: the first paragraph tosses us right into the aftermath of a flood, as a small English village is waking up to “the wonderful new world that had come in the night.” This “newness,” however, is not unlike that of the seasons orienting the lives of the villagers; each phase may hold its own sense of wonder, and yet there is an overarching rhythm, a cyclical architecture which makes past and future largely variations on the same theme. Thus, while we readers are not privy to the details of the flood directly preceding the first chapter, and though by the end of the book we may have the sense that the narrative is incomplete, ultimately the entire history is of little importance. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is but a single chapter in the ongoing life of a village. A village which seems always to have existed and which, we are confident, will continue existing long after the final page. Such is the promise even of biblical disasters: that life, as a whole, goes on, even if individuals change and die.

Review copy courtesy of The Dorothy Project.

Review copy courtesy of The Dorothy Project.

Nevertheless, Comyns’ flood is not resolved with a hopeful rainbow. Despite the whimsical details which breathe life into the world of the author’s creation — for example, the ducks swimming happily in through the windows or the maids hoisting their skirts to chase bobbing eggs around the flooded kitchen — the narration as a whole is dark, overhung with a sense of impending doom. Within the rich panoramas Comyns paints, it is easy to miss the bleaker elements of foreshadowing: a panicked pig flailing around in the water, its throat bloodied (an image which will reoccur in the book’s most gruesome scene), or the peacocks dying one by one. For as we soon learn, the flood is but a prelude to a mysterious delirium which suddenly appears to decimate the village like some sort of biblical plague.

That the individual characters’ deaths should mirror these early descriptions of animals is only one example of countless human/animal juxtapositions threaded throughout the narrative, which weaves easily in and out of points of view, alternating between man and beast: the seemingly cold eye of the observer that sees little difference between the two. Even when settling upon a single character, the narration employs animal vocabulary or natural metaphors, such as this depiction of the clergyman’s mother:

His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted, claw-like hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall round her like the petals from a dying flower.

Often, animals seem to barge into the story as if from nowhere; what seems an afterthought in reality serves to cast a light behind, illuminating the hidden motives of the characters on whose heels these animals closely follow:

As soon as the funeral was over, and before the mourners had hardly left, the uninvited surged into the churchyard to watch the gravedigger fill the grave with the clods of clay so recently removed and to examine the dying wreaths. They were accompanied by many dogs.

Such details, then, expose the violence of nature, whether of the natural world or, far more ominously, of human nature. What at first glance seems a bucolic tale of an English country village, instead proves an unflinching look at the inherent self-interest underlying the veneer of civilization. Further punctuating the narrative are strategically placed euphemisms, casting brief yet powerful glimpses at subjects rather taboo for their time: race, extramarital affairs and illegitimate pregnancy. One can imagine that it is these themes, combined with the overarching darkness, which led to the book’s banning in Ireland upon its first publication in 1954.

However, despite this incisive tone, the novel is strewn with hidden gems of wry humor and glitters with flashes of tenderness. Comyns’ straightforward style creates a landscape made to explore at leisure. Beneath the deceptively simple language, details are fastidiously placed like points on a treasure map, just waiting for the reader to discover them. Once the entire route is traced, and the final sentence read, one has the urge to retrace her path to unearth what went overlooked the first time. Doing so can only add to the richly layered and experience of this text. Thus, like the characters themselves, who, in spite of their grandiose dreams just can’t seem to say goodbye to their village, we, too, can happily settle into Comyns’ finely wrought novel — and never leave.

By | 2014-04-21T18:47:00+00:00 April 21st, 2014|Categories: Barbara Comyns|5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett April 21, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    This is superb, Amanda. I started reading the book a few years ago and was loving it — but then we moved (story of my life for the past decade — no more! (I hope)). I will now dig it up again. I also have The Vet’s Daughter in the lovely NYRB Classics edition that I’ve been meaning to read.

    Thanks for the review and for your contribution to The Mookse and the Gripes — you are most welcome here!

  2. Amanda April 21, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Thank you, Trevor! This was my introduction to the work of Barbara Comyns, but as soon as I finished the final page, I went in search of another title to follow it up. Now I, too, am eager to read The Vet’s Daughter.

  3. leroyhunter April 22, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Fine review Amanda. I’ve had this on my list since reading John Self’s thoughts about it a good while back, but this reminds me that it’s a book (and Comyns is a writer) I want to get to.

  4. Trevor April 22, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    It seems she’s due a revival of some kind. Looking on Amazon, it looks like this and The Vet’s Daughter are her only two books in print here in the U.S. You can get a few for relatively cheap through secondary sellers, but, boy, even the cheapest copy of The Skin Chairs is $36.26 in a “used – acceptable” Virago Modern Classics edition. Laughably, Touch of Mistletoe (also in the Virago edition) is cheapest at $215.41 in a “used – acceptable” edition (the only new copy is a steal at $886.70). Her books are more readily available in the UK.

  5. […] and MAYDAY Magazine. She contributes film and book reviews at the sites Reading in Translation and The Mookse and the Gripes. You can find her on Twitter@amandasarasien or on the web […]

Leave a Reply