Thursday 13 September 2018

Who Was Changed

Having recently bought Barbara Comyns's Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead purely because I remembered enjoying her The Vet's Daughter, I wasn't at all sure I was going to like this one nearly as much. A tale of flood, fire and raging madness set in a Warwickshire village in the early years of the twentieth century, it looked rather too highly coloured and over-the-top for my taste, and suggested the dread prospect of 'magical realism'. The sentence quoted on the back cover (of my VMC paperback edition) also sounded dishearteningly reminiscent of Cold Comfort Farm:
'The grandmother cried, "Don't go yet, tell me more. What about my rose beds?" Her son seized the trumpet ... and shouted down its black depths, "Dead animals floating everywhere. Your roses are completely covered."'
  This grandmother with the ear trumpet – the violently tyrannical matriarch of the Willoweed family – is indeed a monstrous character, but Comyns manages to make her as believable (in context) as the other members of her variously dysfunctional household: her weak, self-pitying son (a would-be author) and his three children, of whom the gentle, thoughtful Emma is the most attractive and the one through whose eyes we see much of the action. However, Comyns's skill is to keep switching the point-of-view from one character to another to give us an all-round view of the events that unfold.
 These are, to say the least, dramatic. The novel begins with the river flooding: 'The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. 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.'
The flood waters subside, but far worse is to come, in the shape of an outbreak of fatal madness that afflicts the village, the result of ergot poisoning. There are deaths and funerals galore in the course of this short novel, but Comyns's matter-of-fact tone, sharp eye and macabre humour – and her swift, light-footed narration – ensure that things never get bogged down in misery, and moments of quiet and serenity punctuate the action. The setting is evoked with great skill, the characters are deftly drawn, and all the principals (with the possible exception of Granny Willoweed) are fully rounded. Amazingly, this tale of horrors achieves a quite unforced happy ending – but then, even at its darkest, it always (apart from one scene of pure horror) feels more like a comedy than a tragedy. It is certainly an exhilarating read – and, I think, a bit of a masterpiece. Barbara Comyns is such a good writer; she deserves to be much better known.

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