The Vet’s Daughter
by Barbara Comyns (1959)
NYRB Classics (2003)
Woah — The Vet’s Daughter is quite the book. I have had it on my shelf for a long time, which is just the reason it found its way to my List of Betterment: NYRB Classics Edition, or the list of ten older NYRB Classics that I’m for sure going to read in 2021. With The Vet’s Daughter I have now read two from the list. I’m so glad I finally read it! You should read it, if you haven’t already.
This is the fourth book I’ve read by Barbara Comyns. The ones I’ve read, which I assume are the most famous (see them here), have been dark . . . very dark at times. There’s no way around that, particularly with The Juniper Tree. But there’s something invigorating — dare I say, almost delightful — about her incisive details and the matter-of-fact tone she employs to carry us through her nightmares. I have loved each of them, but The Vet’s Daughter is probably my favorite.
The daughter of the title is Alice Rowlands. I feel so bad for Alice, as we watch her make her way around the Clapham and Battersea areas of London, finding very little joy in which to escape, though escape — in any way possible — seems to be on her mind often. Here is the first paragraph, which I love for many reasons, but just look at the end when she finally gets away from this man:
A man with small eyes and a ginger mustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down the street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee-caps. We came to a great railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, “You must excuse me,” and left this poor man among the privet hedges.
One of Alice’s problems is that there is no real escape. She gets away from this pathetic man, whoever he is, but she does so by going into her own home. The vet’s house is, of course, her house. Inside she finds her mother cooking cabbage. It all feels kind of normal, and kind of not. As Alice looks around the room and describes her home she does so matter-of-factly. If we’re not paying attention, we might miss some of the ghoulish details she drops.
One thing we cannot miss, though, is how much she and her mother yearn for — plea for — moments when they do not have to deal with the vet himself. The vet is not a caricature. He is not some big, cartoonish bully in the home. Comyns allows him to be exactly what he is: an abuser, in every sense of the word, of his wife and daughter. For all of this book’s gothic features, there is nothing even slightly romantic about the vet. He has destroyed the two women who share his home:
The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage, escaping gas and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time.
The first several chapters of the book detail the decline of Alice’s mother, who is not long for this world. Somehow Comyns makes this tragedy feel like a respite from the terrible life with the vet.
Autumn came and Mother was still dying in her room. It was peaceful in there because Father was frightened of her illness and never visited her.
Some of these chapters are also wonderful because we get to know, somewhat, the mother’s inner life as she drifts in and out of consciousness, sometimes going on for several paragraphs about her childhood in Wales. It’s truly achingly sad when we sit with Alice and just listen to her mother talk. I love that Alice — who is the one narrating this story — records this.
Naturally, things do not get better when Alice’s mother dies. Instead, her father finds a “housekeeper” from the local pub, The Trumpet, and in moves Rosa Fisher.
I’m not going to continue recounting this story. What I’d like to think about right now is how this story modulates between its grim realism and its fantastical element. In the aftermath of a particularly painful event, Alice discovers that she can levitate.
In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me — and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought, “I mustn’t break the glass globe.” I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.
Was this just a dream? Because Alice is so matter-of-fact, even in the telling of this amazing ability, I had to wonder. Her life and its disappointments continue, and we get quite a lot more grim reality. Neither Alice nor Comyns are able to allow Alice to simply float away, as she’d surely like to do. But eventually, again accompanying something truly terrible, Alice finds herself levitating again. Soon she learns to control it. It still stays somewhat in the background, a secret. Why does Comyns do this? Why not give us all some kind of relief by allowing Alice to euphorically float away? Well, I don’t know, but I think it’s at least partly because this levitation is not to be equated with escape, or even with something Alice wants. It’s an act of dissociation, at first spontaneous and then with some more control.
So even this remarkable ability is the result of trauma, and, worse yet, it’s going to be exploited.
The days that followed this announcement were like a nightmare, unreal and terrible. All the unexpected kindness and care which had come my way so recently were like a fattening up before I was slaughtered.
Alice is an amazing character, and all of this serves to make her rich and complex and so sad. You can always depend on NYRB Classics to make your heart ache!