Barbara Comyns – Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

There can’t be many books with such a great first line

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.

But that is Barbara Comyns. She has her own unmistakable voice, strange and dark, but also funny. At times when I was devouring this book in one sitting, I let out a shriek of laughter and then a little later a gasp of horror. What a writer. Her characters can be so cruel, but then we can rejoice with them as they escape captivity.

The flood in the Willoweed’s drawing-room, is the first sign that the times are out of joint. The peacocks from the garden are dead, a new-born piglet is dead, the hens commit suicide, but inside the house Grandmother Willoweed is still yelling for her lunch. During the night a storm breaks and the grandmother wakes the household. The maids, two young sisters, Norah and Eunice, who bear the marks of her blows are ordered to

‘Pull the curtains, you fools!’ screamed the grandmother as a flash of blue lightning filled the kitchen.  Norah climbed onto the table to reach the window; but a great clap of thunder came, and she made a dash to the broom cupboard under the stairs.

Grandmother Willoweed yelled, ‘Coward! What do you think I pay you for, you insubordinate slut?’

It is not just the maids who are under the bullying thrall of the old woman. Her indolent son Ebin and his three children, Emma, Hattie and Dennis live with her. They don’t go to school. Occasionally Grandmother yells at her son to teach them something and he gives a few tutorials but soon grows tired of it and the children are free again. She is also locked in a fight to the death with Old Ives the man of work to see who will live the longest.

But a greater catastrophe is soon to come upon the village, which some will survive and some not. And here is the beginning of it

In spite of the rather sinister appearance of the dark little rye loaves the villagers were delighted with them and enjoyed their bitter flavour.

Death and madness for some will follow from this kind gesture by the baker. But some will find love and freedom. The outcomes are always bittersweet in the work of Barbara Comyns.

This book was a beautiful reissue from Daunt Books. They are also re issuing another book by Barbara Comyns in July, A Touch of Mistletoe. How could you resist a book with this first line?

The morning I left home Mother was recovering from being poorly and she’d been sick in the vegetable basket.

To read Jacqui’s review (where we discovered it) go here

15 thoughts on “Barbara Comyns – Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

  1. Thanks, Gert, and thanks, Jacquiwine for this recounting of yet another way to view the world. I think that my retirement (should it ever occur) would be helped by a bit more of this than I currently have in my life.

  2. You know you’ll never retire, Teri. But I think you would appreciate this little book. Her writing is so visual. Not a word wasted(unlike the author I am struggling with at the moment…see next week’s review.)

    1. They do sound like vivid characters. I like that the children maintain some amount of innocence (unlike, say, Henry James). (Evading the comment about retirement.)

      1. Oh, yes, I’ve read all of them. It’s all the death and rotting and stuff. I can only just cope with Our Spoons Came from Woolworths now and even then I have to brace myself for the dead puppy.

  3. Marvellous stuff! I think you have captured the essence of Comyns in your review, her peculiar, off-kilter world that glitters with flashes of macabre humour. I am delighted to see how much you enjoyed it!

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