18 August 2015

Sisters By a River by Barbara Comyns

Well, I finished this book a few minutes ago and have the 'beastly 'dancing class' feeling in my stomach' that Barbara feels whenever she is uncertain about something about to happen.  What an extraordinary piece of writing.  Apparently this book was written as a memoir to share with her children.  While knowing that Barbara Comyns' background was an extremely sad and difficult one, I resisted the urge to do a bit of digging at the halfway point to find out if things were as horrific as written in this book.  I'm not sure how her children felt about this bold reveal of their lineage full of violence and madness but Sisters By a River would make a perfect bedtime read to horrify twelve year-olds at summer camp.

Told in a series of episodic pieces, each lasting just a few pages, Barbara writes about her family from childhood until she leaves home at seventeen.  The babies began to arrive when her mother was only eighteen with the last one rendering Mammy infertile and deaf.  Similar to descriptions of the Mitford household, there seems to be a knowledge of many things far beyond their years but the babies are thought to be hatched.  While the house seems to be on the scale of a country manor it's in a rundown state and animals raised in front of a warm stove are eventually doomed for the dinnertable.  Doling out cruelties to animals wasn't solely performed by the adults as the girls once tried to ride their rabbits - the results were pretty grim.  Caterpillars were hung on string, ants were burned, and fish were trapped in drainpipes.  There were no heights to which the level of violence would not reach and in describing her father's behaviour....

'Occaisonally he unsuccessfully tried shooting Mammy and as she was quite deaf she didn't even notice.'

The spelling error is intended and an example of how the writing is treated throughout the book although I didn't find it at all distracting.

Written before mass vaccinations there is a consuming fear of rheumatic fever, diphtheria, and pneumonia, which all end up visiting family members at some point,  I did find a laugh out loud moment at one particular incident though...

'Kathleen had a beautiful croupy cough that was always coming, when I had a cough I used to pretend it was much worse than it was and strain myself to make an awful horse croak, but one of the maids called Florrie told me she used to work in an infermany, and an old man there kept coughing away, an up came his lung and she slipped on it in the dark, so I didn't try to cough any more after that.'

To the modern reader there are obvious signs of mental illness but it's also interesting to see signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder before it was widely acknowledged.  Routine tasks are repeated a certain number of times to keep away evil happenings, throwing away items that had been touched, and excessive cleaning and disinfecting.

While some of the details in Sisters By a River go a long way to shining a light on Barbara Comyn's personality and writing style I am glad this wasn't my first experience with her work.  I came to this book after the fantastic Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, The Vet's Daughter, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead and prepared for something off-kilter and slightly macabre.  Still, I've been left feeling a bit wobbly after reading this book and can understand why publishers were hesitant to release it prior to 1947.  It's going to take some time for the queasy feeling to go away but I can already see the brilliance and bravery in the writing.

Girls at a Rabbit Hutch at Ravelston by George Cruikshank


  1. I loved this - I can never decide if I like this better, or Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead. There are certainly some very odd moments in this one, but all Comyns' work is a little macabre. Strangely, perhaps, the thing that bothered me most wasn't the casual cruelty towards animals, but the fact that Daddy sees Mammy skipping when she's quite a little girl, and he's an adult, and says he will marry her when she grows up. I think there's something really creepy about that.

    1. Odd is right, Christine! I did laugh here and there but it was the sort of laugh you have when scared to death on a theme-park ride! And yes, creepy is the word for it. Have you watched Life in Squares? The situation was the same when David Garnett saw Angelica for the first time as a newborn and says he's going to marry her...and it happened. If you meet an older man and fall in love, that's one thing but to watch someone grow up....I can't imagine.

      My vote is for Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead!

    2. Didn't see Life in Squares, but I came across David Garnett long after I first read Barbara Comyns, and was shocked. Not only does he set his sights on Angelica when she's a baby (goodness knows what social workers would say about that today!), but he was her father's lover... Odd doesn't even begin to describe it.

  2. I've enjoyed other of Comyns books, though this one doesn't sound too cosy.