I am swiftly becoming a Barbara Comyns fangirl. I previously read and really enjoyed The Vet’s Daughter, but I loved Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Until falling for the wonder that is Virago Press, I’d never heard of Comyns. Now I can’t get enough and want to collect everything she’s ever written. (As luck would have it, The Classics Club’s monthly theme for March is Feminist Lit and Virago/Persephone books, so this title fits in nicely as my contribution to that event.)
The thing I most love about Barbara Comyns’s stories is that she always seems to be writing a dual or parallel narrative. On the one hand, she is a master of realism, with wonderful characterization and great detailing of setting. But on the other hand, there is always – whether it is literal, metaphorical or a misdirection – a vein of the strange, even fantastical to her writing. The most serious, literal events seem mythic or archetypal. You can almost choose your own adventure with Comyns. Do you want a family drama or do you want a fantasy? Character study or village narrative? You can have them all in one book if you prefer; it’s simply a matter of perception. And the darkness…oh, so surprisingly dark, but always tucked neatly into a genteel and pleasant package. Comyns is a bit of a cypher. Her writing is sly, her perception sharp, and her written sense of humor is wicked. What an odd duck she must have seemed to her literary contemporaries!
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is full of dark humor and social satire and weird situations and colorful characters. It pokes fun at early-20th century tropes and managed to get itself banned in Ireland upon publication for being too “morbid.” It’s not too morbid…but it is morbid…and funny! Just DO NOT read the introduction (at least in the Virago Press edition; I don’t know about other editions) until you’ve finished the book, as it gives away far too much of the plot, including the essential twist! Grr.
The story focuses on the eccentric Willoweed family in Warwickshire: Ebin Willoweed – ineffectual and irresponsible widower, Grandmother Willoweed – his imperious, mean-spirited and stingy elderly mother who owns most of the land in the area and lords it over her tenant farmers and her family, the young children Hattie and Dennis, Emma – the discontented oldest daughter on the cusp of womanhood, and the servants – sisters Norah and Eunice, the cook, and “old Ives.” The cast of characters is filled out with many other well-drawn villagers. The town and its oddities was so perfectly detailed that it took on an odd life of its own in my mind – a weird world in miniature.
Our first encounter with this bizarre little world begins this way:
“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. Old Ives stood on the verandah steps beating his red bucket with a stick while he called to them, but today they ignored him and floated away white and shining towards the tennis court. Swans were there, their long necks excavating under the dark, muddy water. All around there was a wheezy creaking noise as the water soaked into unaccustomed places, and in the distance a roar and above it the shouts of men trying to rescue animals from the low-lying fields.”
This really sets the tone for the rest of the book. In describing the very real event of a flood, Comyns manages to impart a gloss of fantastical glamour by describing things in such a way as to make them feel somehow uncanny. This feeling grows throughout the course of the book. After the flood, people in the village begin to die one by one, some in unusual ways. Some villagers understandably panic, others try to puzzle out a cause, but many take this in stride like it’s a perfectly normal chain of events. Yes, there is definitely more going on that it might at first seem, and if you are anything like me, you will find yourself again and again chuckling – even giggling, perhaps a guffaw or two – at the most horrid occurrences at the absolute least appropriate of times. The Comyns brand of humor brings the reader in on the dark joke, and you feel simultaneously tickled and guilty.
If none of this entices you to give Comyns and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead a try, there is a character named Lumber Splinterbones, for pity’s sake! Lumber. SPLINTERBONES.