19 April 2015

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

I remember the day this book was placed into my hands along with several others.  The sun was shining on Charing Cross Road and it was the first time I met Simon, Rachel, and Mary.  While I nipped back to the tea room at the National Gallery to collect the umbrella I had left behind, my three friends had amassed a small pile of books they thought I would like.  I specifically remember asking 'is this one really that good?' and Simon nodding 'yes' with a smile.

The introduction is a succinct autobiography by Comyns herself (of course) that I found utterly charming and in keeping with her style, brutally honest.  In less than a page she moved throughout her life from writing as a ten year-old, a homesick sister who ran away from boarding school, the death of her father, and attending art school.  I'm not completely sure whether Comyns was a bit of a magnet for weird events or it's just the way she tells a story but how many people meet partners this way...

'I married a young artist that I'd known slightly since we were children - actually, we first met on an Anglo-Saxon burial ground where excavations were going on in a field near my home...'

As for The Vet's Daughter, published by Virago in 1959, Comyns wrote 'the book seemed to write itself''.  A rather humble opinion of brilliant storytelling that's just implausible enough to read like a fairy tale dovetailed with the youthful naiveté of a teenager during the Edwardian era.

Alice Rowlands lives with her dying mother and insensitive ass of a father in a house that smells of animal.  Well, he is a vet, after all.  Thank goodness for Mrs. Churchill who is a bit worse for wear but very welcoming and warm in personality.  She is recently employed to help with the care of Mrs. Rowland and help out around the house.

Alice daydreams out of boredom, spends time with her friend, Lucy, who talks on her hands because she is deaf, and narrates what she experiences around Clapham Common.  Moments of comic darkness dot throughout such as the funeral director arriving to measure Mrs. Rowlands for her casket while still breathing on her deathbed.  A local floozy named Rosa becomes the vet's lover once he becomes a widower (read 'tasteless haste').  Thankfully, Alice gains an ally in Mr. Peebles, a locum vet.  It's apparent he sees potential in the relationship but to Alice he is more of a distraction from everything unstable and frightening in her surroundings.  When Mr. Rowlands suddenly announces that Alice is to leave the house because he despises her, she is sent by train to live with Mr. Peebles' mother in a lovely house.

'I drew the curtains for her and made up the fire and stirred it to a blaze.  Looking round the room I was surprised to see how elegant this upstairs drawing-room was; the pale blue carpet, decorated with roses and true lovers' knots, pleased me so much that I almost forgot my hunger.  There was a glass-fronted cabinet filled with delicate china; and pretty little chairs and sofas with curved legs were dotted round the room.  There were lovely glass things like heavy tinkerbells on the mantelpiece.  It was the largest and most enchanting room I'd ever seen.'

This enchanting house is not without its negative forces and Alice is once again plagued by the presence of manipulative people.  And then there is the handsome Nicholas.

All of these details could happen in any number of bleak accounts of classic fiction but Alice has a certain gift, talent, affliction...take your pick...in that she can levitate.  At first this happens spontaneously but Alice soon harnesses the ability to levitate at will with devastating consequences.

For some reason that would take a bit of thinking about, the tragedy of Joan of Arc came to mind while reading The Vet's Daughter.  A young impressionable girl who means well, experiences too much that can't be explained, and has to go through it all with a sense of loneliness.  I had to reread the last couple of pages because they couldn't be true; it couldn't end like that.  But it did.  Usually this would make me want to curse the author but I've come to realize this is just the way it is with Barbara Comyns and it's absolutely wonderful.

9 comments:

  1. I remember that day, and the bookshop - and thinking what an advantage Rachel and SImon have as bibliophiles when they're so much taller that we are, Darlene! Maybe I subconsciously remembered what you bought because I bought a copy in a charity shop later - and like you, didn't read it for ages. I've just unearthed my post http://mrsminiversdaughter.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/i-slipped-this-book-into-my-bag-to.html - which reminded me of how much I enjoyed it. But the ending certainly did make me curse!

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    1. And how rude of bookshops to stock books on shelves that reach the ceiling and not supply a library ladder! But then again, just as many good finds are on the bottom shelves...a bit dustier perhaps.
      Really looking forward to seeing you soon, Mary!

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  2. This is one of my all-time favourite books. So glad you loved it. Great review.

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    1. Comyns' work is like nothing else and impossible to forget. Why are her books ever out of print?

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    1. Well, hello there, Mystica! A great find...glad a copy found it's way to you!

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  4. What a very happy day that was! What lovely memories - and I'm so glad that my nod helped you to read this dark joy of a book. A great review, Darlene, and the Joan of Arc comparison is really food for thought.

    p.s. Mary is right - I have often been grateful for some height! Particularly when I worked in the library, but also when shopping :)

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    1. Take the religion out of it and there was something about the innocence of a young girl up against shattering experiences and perhaps that first-person narrative made her seem so alone. Anyway, Joan the warrior kept coming into my head and the outcome for both young girls was very sad. But I LOVED the book!

      I laughed reading your post about the trip to the States...books and luggage allowance *sigh*. Have a lovely day, Simon!

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    2. ,,,back to the comparison...both girls had an ability, talent, or expanded mental capacity, that created both fear and awe. Oh, where is a book club when you need one?!

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