24 January 2015

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

This was my second adventure with the writings of Barbara Comyns and I am completely enamoured.  Her quirky storytelling in a matter-of-fact way reveals the warts and all dynamics of the Willoweed family in their Warwickshire home, quite literally swirling with chaos.  And although the opening lines are often quoted whenever this book is mentioned they are worth repeating.

'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.'

Published in 1954, this wonderfully eerie tale is set about forty years before so just around the time of the Great War.  The first few lines could cause a reader to think this story is a bit twee but just you wait.

Grandmother Willoweed is a feisty matriarch who controls her family by threatening to remove members from her will...almost daily.  This behaviour results in emasculating her son, Ebin, an out of work journalist and he, along with just about everyone from the village, tends to avoid her if possible.

'He stood looking down at the river, which had returned to its banks, but was flowing very fast and full.  In some way the river flowing with such purpose and determination depressed Willoweed.  He felt humiliated and a failure in everything he undertook; the thought of all those half-complete, mouse-nibbled manuscripts in his room saddened him even more.'

Ebin is father to three children but technically the youngest, Hattie, is the result of an affair.  Mrs. Willoweed, or Jenny, died just as she was about to deliver her last child but miraculously Dr. Hatt saves the baby.  Hattie is named after the doctor and it's obvious that Jenny's lover was a black man.  But none of this matters in the least.

From the very first page of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead I was reminded of reading fairy tales as a child and would have loved this as a bedtime story (I used to love being scared).  The Willoweeds are a family living between reality and madness and when people in the village start dying by their own hand this tale takes on a decidedly Grimm Brothers feel.  Despite some very dark moments, as a reader I found myself thoroughly entertained by the idea of what could possibly happen next; such as Old Ives talent for making funeral wreaths using the language of botany.

'Ives liked to choose suitable flowers for his wreathes.  He often planned the one he would make for Grandmother Willoweed: - thistles and hogswart and grey-green holly - sometimes he would grant her one yellow dandelion.'

Amidst the madness there is plenty of love and I was particularly charmed by the relationship between the three siblings.  Padding out the story of the Willoweed family are two sisters, Eunice and Nora, who are maids at the cottage and their peripheral story is both interesting and entertaining.

My copy of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is an inter-library loan from a nearby university with strict instructions for no renewals.  I'm quite sure it's a first edition with gloriously thick pages, blue cloth binding, and a small-ish size that sits in your hands so comfortably.  Hopefully the second-hand shops in London will have a copy pop up while I'm there and if you ever find a copy just take out your wallet and buy it.


Waterwheel by Eric Ravilious, 1938


7 comments:

  1. I have a copy, unread because I'm trying to make my unread Comyns books last, but your enthusiasm on top of Simon's might just tip it off the shelf into my hands.

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    1. You too? I'm doing the same thing with Bowen so I completely understand, Jane. Although, I'm sure that I could read and reread her books ten times over and still discover something new. Anyway, you have a book sitting on your shelf that is unlike anything else so definitely something to look forward to.

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  2. Another writer I've never read, another blog post that makes me wonder why not!

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    1. Comyns doesn't get much mention, does she. I'm quite sure that I've passed her books up on second-hand shelves for that very reason and now I could kick myself. Have a look at your library's catalogue, Audrey, and see if you can find this one hiding somewhere. Quick and quirky lunchtime reading...you'll be glad....I hope!

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  3. This is one of my absolute favorites and I'm so glad you enjoyed it too. Hope you find your own copy soon!

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    1. Glad to hear that, Scott! Sometimes it's the most succinct of stories that provide the best memories and this one has definitely left a mark. And congratulations once again on getting married!

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  4. Coming to this one super late, but I love this book so much! And jealous of you seeing such an early edition. It was actually reprinted in the US by 'Dorothy' (a publishing house, not a person!) a few years ago, in a nice, quirky edition.

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