Right, then – The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. Hopefully you’ve managed to find yourself a copy, and maybe even read it. I’ve already seen one or two reviews cropping up around the blogosphere, but there’s still plenty of time to get involved – let me know if you’ve blogged about The Vet’s Daughter (or even another Comyns novel, if that’s what you could find) and I’ll do a round-up post on Friday or Saturday. Polly (Novel Insights) and Claire (Paperback Reader) are also heading up this informal readalong, so pop over to them this week too.
I’ll hang my colours to the mast from the off, and say that I am a big Comyns fan. You can see my thoughts on four other Comyns novels here, and The Vet’s Daughter is vying for top place at the moment. In a slim novel, an awful lot seems to happen. Alice is the vet’s daughter in question, and starts the novel living with her sickly, scared mother and her unpredictable, violent father. There is little happiness in this depiction of home life, but nor is it a portrait of Dickensian bleakness. Alice’s father refuses to see his wife while she is dying, sells off people’s pets to a vivisectionist instead of putting them down, and has bountiful meals while keeping his family on strict rations. But, though selfish and unkind, he is not barbaric. Comyns knows, despite her often surreal style, that to create a truly cruel character there must be no exaggeration. Alice’s father is not an ogre, and he is all the more evil for it.
The slow dying of Alice’s mother is drawn perfectly – as is her fear, to the last, of causing her husband any annoyance. Once she is gone, she is swiftly replaced by Rosa – a selfish, silly, and bawdy barmaid with plans to use Alice as bait wherever possible. Eventually Alice manages to leave, but the house she moves to (half burnt-out; run by cacklingly insolent servants and occupied by the melancholic mother of a locum vet) is no romanticised escape. Even when a potential suitor comes along, Comyns privileges her surreal version of reality over a fairy-tale ending.
And I haven’t even mentioned the most surreal aspect (though one which feels completely congruous when reading the novel): In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me – and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought “I mustn’t break the gas glove”. I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.
As Barbara Trapido said at a talk I attended the other day, “Some people criticised me for having a character levitate in Juggling, but I just thought – yes, he would levitate.” Something about Barbaras, obviously.
As with all the novels from the first half of Comyns’ writing career (she wrote eight books between 1947-1967, and a further three in the 1980s) the words ‘matter-of-fact’ come to mind. The Vet’s Daughter is told in the first person, and Alice’s naive and ingenuous voice never over-elaborates the cruelties she and her mother suffer. ‘One morning a dreadful thing happened’, for example, is how she introduces the fact that her father has prematurely sent a coffin-maker to measure her mother. This style is a diluted version of the child’s-voice in Sisters By A River, but is still strikingly unlike most novels’ style, and a remarkable gift of Comyns’.
I’m keeping a close eye on my depleting stock of Comyns novels – it will be sad once I’ve reached the end of them – but I know I shall return to The Vet’s Daughter as well as Comyns’ other books. It is a truly remarkable book, and she is a truly remarkable writer. The surreal meets the domestic, and the result is quite extraordinary.