The early stream of books to include in my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About has slowed to a gradual flow, and that was sort of deliberate. I suppose I didn’t want to overwhelm people. This site mentions a lot of books – as you might expect on a literary blog – and also suggest a great deal as being worth reading. I suppose I want to say “Even if you ignore everything else I mention, pay attention to this list.” Of course, you’re perfectly welcome to ignore the list too, but I’d like you to pay special attention to them if you so wish(!) They’re all there for a reason – because they’re touching or hilarious or brilliantly written or just very indicative of my taste, and I know that you’re unlikely to hear about them unless I mention them.
So, after that little preamble, step forward no. 15 on the list – Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Those of you who are more knowledgeable than I will have spotted that the title is from The Fire of Drift-Wood by Longfellow.
We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;
The only other Comyns I’ve read was Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, so she certainly has a way with titles. I bought Who Was Changed… a few years ago, partly because I’d quite enjoyed Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, partly because the mix of a Virago paperback and an interesting cover piqued my interest. Had I turned to the first sentence, I daresay I’d have read the novel much sooner: ‘The ducks swan through the drawing-room windows.’ How can you not want to read on?
The novel opens with a flood, and things get stranger and stranger. If I were to choose one word to describe this novel it would be “surreal” – but surreal in a very grounded manner. Exactly like the cover illustration, actually; part of ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Dinner on the Hotel Lawn’ by Stanley Spencer. Throughout the events (which I don’t want to spoil for you) Comyns weaves a very real, earthy, witty portrait of a village – especially the Willoweed family. A cantankerous old lady who won’t step on land she doesn’t own, Grandmother Willoweed, rules over her docile son, Ebin, and his young children Emma, Hattie and Dennis. Grandmother W is a truly brilliant creation – without the slightest feeling for anybody around her, she is still amusing rather than demonic. For some reason this novel was banned in Ireland upon publication in 1954 – perhaps for the occasional unblenching descriptions, but these are easily skipped if you, like me, can be a bit squeamish.
Though quite a slim novel – my copy is 146 pages of large type – Comyns writes a book which lingers in the mind, one that is vivid and funny and absurd and a must read for anyone interested in off-the-wall literature with human nature at its heart.
And it’s cheap on Amazon.co.uk…
(please do go and read a rather better review on John Self’s Asylum blog here.)