Sisters By A River

Continuing my Barbara Comyns interest, I spent my train journey back from Liverpool reading her first novel Sisters By A River. I bought the novel in Somerset, but there are loads available on Amazon. I say ‘novel’, but there is no structure to this book, really – lots and lots of little essays or vignettes or really just anecdotes. They’re vaguely chronological. I was especially interested by this novel as it’s openly based in Bidford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, where my very close friend Lorna was brought up, and I’ve been several times.

I can’t stand books which use incorrect spelling to reproduce the mind of a child (which put me off Our Spoons Came From Woolworths a bit) but I discovered in the Introduction that Barbara Comyns couldn’t actually spell as an adult, and the publishers decided not to edit her manuscript (the Intro says she couldn’ spell because her mother went deaf when Barbara was young… I couldn’t really see the connection).

This book is actually autobiography – never sure how accurate, and it certainly has all the surrealism I’ve grown to expect from Comyns. Her childhood makes the Mitfords seem dull. Quite similar, actually – six daughters in her case, in a rambling old house with an angry, mad father. The mother is also pretty mad, and the children are fairly uncontrolled, running riot over the house and area, making their own rules and creating their own world. This is representative of the insanity (spelling mistakes intentional! ):

‘Things at home were getting pretty grim about this time, Daddy was particularly mororse and glum through money worries, then he would drink and try and forget but it only made things worse, he never got jolly when he drank, just miserable, I can’t think why he did it. Mammie was always quarreling with him, they were the two best people at agvergating each other I have ever met, she was getting awfully sick of us too, more even than usual, she had got an awful new habit of thinking people were falling in love with her, it was very trying and embarising, we would come on her gazeing into space, her lips moving in an imaginaru conversation with a ficticious lover, she even went so far as to tell Daddy she had lovers and was unfaithful to him, this caused the most frightful rows, usually ending in him throwing all her clothes out of her bedroom window or Mammie running down to the river bank screaming and saying she was going to drown herself, sometimes waving an unloaded revolver above her head, but she never did commit suicide, sometimes the maids, if they were new, would run after her and drag her back to the house, but we would just sit on the chicken pen roof or somewhere peaceful.’

Long sentences, as you see! Everything in the book is told with a child’s calm indifference and no sense of causality. Difficult to know how disingenuous the writing is – either way, it is very effective, and this bizarre autobiographical- novel-anecdotal- chat is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read. At first I thought I’d find it too affected, but in the end I loved it. Would make great reading alongside Mitford stuff.

The tone throughout was rather surreal – ‘Daddy very much dislike finding odd human bones about the house, they had a habbit of getting tucked down the sides of the morning-room chairs’ is the comment on an archeological dig in the garden – but even more surreal when you realise it’s mostly true. Tales of ugly dresses and bad haircuts are told in the same captivating, undemonstrative style as those of Grannie dying and Father throwing a beehive over Mother. If this motley assortment of remembrances were made-up… well, I don’t think they could have been. Such a bizarre childhood, so of its time, and yet utterly fascinating. Completely devoid of charm, but somehow, in a way, it charmed me. I still think Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is Comyn’s best book, of the five I’ve read (standardised spelling for a start!) but Sisters by a River is mesmorising, and a book I’ll return to many times from sheer incredulity and amazement.

Thought I’d just finish off these thoughts by quoting the blurb Barbara Comyns wrote herself in 1947:

The river is the Avon, and on its banks the five sisters are born. The river is frozen, the river is flooded, the sun shines on the water and moving lights are reflected on the walls of the house. It is Good Friday and the maids hang a hot cross bun from the kitchen ceiling. An earwig crawls into the sweep’s ear and stays there for ten years. Moths are resurrected from the dead and bats becomes entangled in young girls’ hair. Lessons are done in the greenish light under the ash-tree and always there is the sound of water swirling through the weir. A feeling of decay comes to the house, at first in a sudden puff down a dark passage and the damp smell of cellars, then ivy grows unchecked over the windows and angry shouts split the summer air, sour milk is in the larder and the father takes out his gun. The children see a dreadful snoring figure in a white nightshift, then lot numbers appear on the furniture and the family is dispersed…

7 thoughts on “Sisters By A River

  • April 27, 2009 at 8:40 am
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    I have read the two novels you mention but not this one. I loved them, I must say, but am not sure about the sound of this. I’d buy it if I saw it in a charity shop, that’s for sure. Interesting review, thanks.

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  • April 27, 2009 at 10:25 am
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    It does sounds surreal and has such a lovely cover (although not as sumptuous as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead). One to look out for in my local second-hand bookshop.

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  • December 11, 2009 at 9:08 pm
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    I agree that Sisters by a river is a splendid book and well worth a read. I did not find the spelling issue a problem – in fact I felt that it actually added to the reading experience. The child's voice in the book is so convincing and so touching that it is fair that she can't spell. I agree that normally I would be really turned off by a mispelt book but in this case I had my ideas challenged. I agree that it is hard to believe that this can have been made up – there is such a marvellous sense of place in the writing as well as a set of strange wonderful stories. I think that it has quite a lot in common with Anglea Carter – except that Barbara Comyns focusses more obviously on family life. My favourite Barbara Comyns book is also Our Spoons Came From Woolworths which is another eglected classic. In terms of finding her books – most of them are available pretty easily and pretty cheaply n Amazon.

    Suzanne, Bedford, UK

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  • September 11, 2016 at 11:08 am
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    Barbara Comyns can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. When I feel Down in the Dumps, I just reach for one of her books and disappear into her magical world….it always does the trick

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    • September 12, 2016 at 4:55 pm
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      Yes! Despite not being cosy at all, somehow she’s perfect.

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  • October 19, 2016 at 5:55 pm
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    Just found this post via the summary list of 1947 books for the week. I posted on it myself, tardily. I suggest that the narrative voice is clearly an adult’s, but one who is orthographically challenged, as you say, but also perhaps masking the traumatic feelings caused by the dire experiences she relates. There’s a darkness beneath the apparently quirky surface that I find intriguing.

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  • October 20, 2016 at 10:28 am
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    My favourite author. I have all of her books…two of which I had to pay a lot of money for but worth every penny. When I’m feeling ‘down in the dumps’ I lose myself in Barbara’s quirky world. I only wish she had written more

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