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Friday, December 10, 2010

Who was changed and who was dead: a case of Comyns fever

In celebration of the publication by Dorothy of a new edition of Barbara Comyns’ wonderful novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, I have posted below a review of this novel which I wrote earlier this year for Pattinase’s feature “Forgotten Book Friday”. My copy of the new edition has arrived all the way from the US and I can’t wait to re read it. The cover is just as good in real life and Brian Evenson’s new introduction is excellent. So, here are my thoughts…

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is the story of a family, a household and a village in a time of flood, plague and savagery. The year is 1914 and the family is that of widower Ebin Willoweed. Ebin is the lethargic home tutor to his three motherless children – Emma, Dennis and Hattie. He is also the dependent and resentful son of the rich forbidding matriarch – Grandmother Willoweed. Grandmother Willoweed is an old tyrant with a forked tongue who refuses to step upon land that she does not own. The wider household includes their tender maids – the sisters Norah and Eunice – and their gardener – the frank speaking, keeper of traditions – Old Ives. Beyond the gates of their manorial home sits a community wider still; the doctor, the baker, the farmer, the miller, the rector, the idiot; their wives, their lovers, their children. As the novel opens the river has burst its banks and flooded the house and the village. Ducks swim through windows and Ebin rows his daughters around the garden in a small boat. Everything is displaced. But soon it will be worse – for plague follows flood and madness follows hard behind. Who will be changed by it, and who will be dead?

The tone of this tale is surreal and slightly magical – but it is not meaninglessly strange. Rather – bizarre happenings and peculiar interludes are used to illustrate themes that are close to us all. Barbara Comyns explores snobbery and insecurity alongside kindness and understanding. She explores the casual cruelties of family life, the odd traps of domesticity, the secrets and lies that lurk in every household. She shows how people can become displaced – by their own attitudes and the mentalities of others. The characters that she creates are powerful because they are candid. Although the moral compass is stronger in some than it is in others, everyone in this stricken village has more than one side – there are no pantomime villains or heroes beyond reproach. Barbara Comyns builds a topsy-turvy world and uses it to illustrate a landscape of great familiarity.

This is not a story without horror. Indeed, the grotesque descriptions of the damage caused by the flood led to the book being banned in Ireland when it was published in 1954. Barbara Comyns was not a user of the euphemism. She wrote frankly and unapologetically. But if a history of censorship suggests to you that this book might be gratuitously unpleasant – then her history of censorship has done Barbara Comyns wrong. In Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead there is an overwhelming feeling for the profound and confusing oddness of everyday life. The true horrors of the novel are the ease with which people will turn to violence – the speed with which they will lose compassion – the comfort which they will take from prejudice. Alongside this disturbing narrative – there are also the unexpected new beginnings that emerge from chaos – the happier, surer future beyond the disaster. This is a lyrical and humane book which ought not to be forgotten.

11 comments:

  1. As you know I am a huge Comyns fan but this is one I have not read. Great to hear there is a new edition! and thanks for the excellent review.

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  2. What a fantastic review, expertly written!
    I really must read this book. It sounds just wonderful.

    Thank you for all your reviews. Long may you remain a reviewer!

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  3. That is a wonderful cover. I have the VMC edition, and you have reminded my that I really must pick it up very soon. For that, thank you!

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  4. I am so pleased to have found another bibliophile today via Tales from a Cottage Garden - what a lovely blog you have - I am off to look round.
    The photo in your post reminded me of the author Elizabeth Taylor who btw is a distant cousin of my husband.

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  5. How exciting when a wonderful book gets released again!

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  6. It sounds really interesting - I always want to read books that have been banned! And I love anything a bit surreal (magic realism is my favourite fiction genre). The cover is very striking.

    Please check out the contest over at my blog for a chance to win more fiction books (and other stuff). Only 2 people have entered so far so you'd have a high chance of winning!

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  7. Not read - not even heard of this one. Thanks for the review.

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  8. I almost bought this book on amazon last month.The cover of this copy looks really lovely.

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  9. A great review. Sounds so interesting. I'm a very visual person though and not sure if I could handle "disturbing" narrative.

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  10. I just received a copy of this book and am eager to read it! Will come back to read your post properly once I've finished the book.

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