“After lunch I’ll go out in the boat again; I might see something interesting. There should be a lot of interesting things around after a flood like this. Surely in all this water someone must have drowned.”
Offbeat, droll, macabre. Whimsical, charming, strangely delightful.
Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is the last book that I was truly smitten by.
(At this point, it might be worth noting that the word “smitten” is the past participle of “smite,” which means to strike with a firm blow. It is equally correct to say, She was smitten by the handsome boy; she was one smitten kitten, as it is to say, The town was smitten with an outbreak of influenza—or madness; or murder.)
I don’t write too many reviews these days—I might start calling them “For Your Consideration” pieces—but this dark, enchanting book, and the sometimes ghastly, sometimes lovely, Willoweed family it follows, has lingered with me long after I first read it.
First, there is a flood.
“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows…. 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.”
Then, there is a death.
Well, many of them. The sorrowful hens commit suicide, the peacocks are drowned. Then Grumpy Nan who lived in the cottage by the mill croaks it. Then Mrs. Hatt, the doctor’s wife. Then another, and another. It is all very strange. It is all very dark and funny and matters terribly and doesn’t matter at all. Life goes on.
“Upstairs Emma sat on her bedroom window-sill and combed her marmalade coloured hair. She closed her eyes and forgot the sad, drowned sights of the morning. A feeling of deep satisfaction came over her as she felt the warmth of the sun and combed her hair, dreamily…. “Oh, how I would love to go to a dance and wear a real evening dress,” she thought, “but nothing like that will happen—no dances, no admirers. I shall just be me, and nothing will happen at all.”
Yes, it is a weird little gem of a book.
I was surprised to read that it was first published in 1954—by a woman born in 1909 and raised in an English country house with servants and a governess. Its simple, playful sentences, steady accumulation of strange details and observations, non-sequiter dialogue and diversions, and surreal images encountered by her characters as mundane or a nuisance, seem to predate the postmodern writing of the 1960s á la Donald Barthelme. Others have compared her to Angela Carter and consider Comyns a neglected genius. Still others have said she is not like anybody else at all and that is fine by me too:
“Barbara Comyns is always being compared to writers X, Y or Z “on acid.” The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least. The comparisons to other writers, apt or not, are never a list of her formative influences; she didn’t have any.” – Emily Gould, writing in The Awl in 2010.
What is certain is she has been largely overlooked, and I feel lucky to have happened across her.
Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead was banned by The Irish Censorship of Publications Board (though what book wasn’t, one might ask). I happened to hear about it one night, deep in the interwebs, when I came across Dorothy, a publishing project who reissued the by then out-of-print novel.
“Dorothy is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women. We want to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.”
“Marvelous!” I thought. And it really was.
For your consideration: