Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Comyns’

Finally, I am reviewing my last read of November. It feels like such a long time since I read this book – which turned out to be easily one of my favourite reads of the month. Out of the Red into the Blue was the last Barbara Comyns book I had to track down, and I found a plain, ex library copy for around £30 – I had to snap it up. So, the pictured edition isn’t what my edition looks like – mine wouldn’t make a very pretty picture, but I am so happy I own it – and all Barbara Comyns’ books, in a variety of editions.

Out of the Red Into the Blue is a memoir not a novel and having so loved her novels, I admit my expectations weren’t high. However, I needn’t have worried, I loved this book. It is possible though, that I am not very objective when it comes to my favourite writers, of course this isn’t like The Vet’s Daughter or Their Spoons Came From Woolworths – we couldn’t expect it to be. Yet, Comyns voice is recognisable, quirky, and sometimes rather odd. We all know that person who tells a good, funny story of things that have happened to them, to who we always say, ‘oh my goodness, that could only happen to you!” Barbara Comyns must surely have been that person for all her friends. When her son sends her a strange little beeswax figure of a man, Barbara immediately decided it will bring her family good luck and puts it in pride of place in the drawing room. When she and her husband have a row in Spain – she runs away and ends up hiding up a fruit tree in the dark to escape guard dogs.

“There were two to begin with, but later they were joined by a tiny dog that was even fiercer than the others, and eventually I was forced to climb a tree to escape them while the dogs barked and snuffled below. It was a horse’s banana tree – at least I always called them that, but later I learnt they were called alcarrobas. Fortunately this was a large tree and I could get quite high, but every now and then a banana (or pod) would fall on the ground and start the dogs off again. Men came from the farm-houses with torches to see what was causing all the noise, and I was terrified they would see me up the tree and think I was mad – it would have been impossible to explain what I was doing up there at that time of night in Spanish.”

This is the story of how Barbara Comyns and her family left England for life on a Spanish island. The Island they settle on is called Ciriaco in the book, only that doesn’t exist, so I assume she decided to fictionalise the place – Wikipedia claim it was Ibiza where they lived briefly before moving to Barcelona. There are also some other things which are ignored or glossed over, and the timeline is slightly confusing – as the book seems to span less than two years – ending with a return to England. Only, the family actually spent many years in Spain. None of that really matters – as for a Comyns fan this book gives a delicious little glimpse into the slightly chaotic world of Barbara Comyns.

The book opens with Barbara her husband, daughter, and several dogs living in a large house in London that they can barely afford. Barbara’s son Nicholas is away in Cyprus doing National Service. Barbara’s husband Raymond she describes as a civil servant – who has recently lost his job, and is finding it hard to get another one. The truth was slightly more colourful of course – her husband (real name Richard) had in fact worked for MI6 alongside Kim Philby – and was laid off due to his association with the renowned double agent. About her own career she is rather self-effacing describing herself as having written a bit and published a couple of books.

For several chapters we follow the family in the year or so before they move to Spain – a time of money worries, difficult lodgers, worries with pets, and a new housekeeper in the basement. It is Barbara who comes up with the idea of Spain – and it takes a while to sell the idea to her husband. They must also contend with the trauma of disposing of a house they love, and what to do with the pets. Eventually, Barbara goes alone – to find a house – her husband joining her later. Her grown up children don’t make the move to Spain initially but join their parents later on a series of visits. Tasked with finding a house – Barbara is staying in a small, cheap hotel – where she is rather horribly uncomfortable – and until the weather improves very cold – it’s an inauspicious start.

 “Although I was very lonely, my days were happy until it became dark and cold and I had to return to my hotel. As soon as I went into that dreary street my spirits sank. It was one of those streets where the road is always up and the wind always blows. I would go into my room and try and make it comfortable by lighting the little oil stove and putting the saucepan of water on top, but, besides making a great smell, the stove made very little difference to the room because the ceiling was so high and the window so large. When it became dark I always tried the electric light hopefully, but it never came to more than a faint glow. I bought a 100 watt bulb instead of the tiny one provided, but to my horror the weight pulled the whole light fitting out of the wall, so I had to rely on candles.”

Finally Barbara finds the first of two houses the family live in on the island – and while it isn’t perfect – it has a wonderful view of the sea and Barbara who is desperate to find a home – takes it. Raymond arrives with the youngest of the dogs they had had in London – and the house’s impracticalities soon become apparent – having to get water from a well in the kitchen, terrible problems with drains and small rooms all opening off the living room. However, in great enthusiasm Barbara sets about trying to create a garden. They are visited by Raymond’s father and Caroline their daughter – who ends up staying a long time – and Nicholas pays a flying visit too.

The second house they move to is in the town, in a rather poor street – but the house has other advantages – being in a sunny position having its own back yard with trees. Here they settle in, and Caroline is soon very much a part of the island, an attractive young woman she attracts a lot of young men – falling in love with a young man called Pepe. There are more dramas around dogs – and a falling out with the local dog catcher (quite unpleasant to read about) – Barbara’s family certainly seem to make their mark – and their time on the island is always eventful.

This book was a joyful treat for me – because I love Barbara Comyns – but it actually made me want to know more about her the woman and her family. I could have read many more pages of this stuff. Delightful.

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Barbara Comyns has become one of my favourite writers, although picking favourites is always rather hard. Having read nine of her eleven novels, I feared I may never be able to get hold of the last two – Birds in Tiny Cages (1964) and Out of the Red, into the Blue (1960) – well never count against the determination of a seasoned book buyer. Sometimes copies come up at rather insane prices – so I just had to keep searching, and relying on other people alerting me to copies when they spotted them. My copy of Birds in Tiny Cages is a neat little facsimile edition with a ribbon – nice clear print and just a few of the sort of black marks and printing errors you get when a text has been copied from an old book. While I was reading Birds in Tiny Cages I started a conversation about it on a bookish FB group I am in, and was alerted to a copy of Out of the Red, Into the Blue – I swooped and it is now mine! Both of these are very autobiographical in fact although Out of the Red.. is generally listed as a novel it looks to be more of a memoir – I had to have a good old flick through it when it came, though I am going to save reading it properly for a little while. Like that hard to get memoir – Birds in Tiny Cages is set in Spain; inspired by the author’s time living there.

I knew before I started reading that Birds in Tiny Cages was not in the classic Comyns tradition of The Vet’s Daughter, Who was Changed and who Was Dead etc – and so my expectations were not overly high. Yet, there was a lot about this book I really loved, and quite a bit that I thought was recognisably Comyns. What we don’t have in this novel is that strange, altered world feel that some of her novels have, or that slightly macabre undercurrent that runs through novels like The Skin Chairs and The Juniper Tree. However, Flora is a recognisable Comyns character – and there were other characters who felt recognisable too.

Flora and her husband Leo have been living in Barcelona for three months as the novel opens. Flora is the youngest of four sisters, Leo’s health has forced them to come to Spain – and Flora is already lonely in the stuffy attic flat where they are living. Leo teaches English, and works long hours and Flora spends those hours alone, with only the goings on she can see across the rooftops from her window to keep her company.

“Fortunately the roofs were Spanish and consequently extremely busy, with women hanging out their perpetual laundry, children riding scooters and tricycles, barking dogs, mattress-making, old ladies sleeping in rocking chairs, cars being sprayed, carpets being cleaned, boys sparring, roof gardens, hens in boxes, cats, and birds in tiny cages.”

Flora is a typical Comyns character – she seems quite childlike at times, it’s easy to forget she isn’t a teenager – she seems naïve and easily manipulated. She becomes rather afraid of the apartment building’s portero – and starts to see him as the enemy she must try and get past when coming in and out. There is a passiveness about Flora – she has little to do, her idleness and isolation seeming to go hand in hand.

Flora is therefore delighted to meet John an English artist who shares a studio nearby. Through John, Flora is introduced to Parker, a sculptor friend – who Flora is at once both repelled by and oddly drawn to. Parker has that sort of confidence and magnetic personality that means he is never without female company for long – and Flora finds herself agreeing to visit him at his studio – with the inevitable results. Parker is another recognisable Comyns character, a kind of Mr Fox type – Flora is drawn back to him again and again despite herself, concerned that Leo will find out, but unable to stop herself, she becomes oddly guiltless moving dreamlike through her days that are all so alike.

 “All she wanted was the two stolen hours she managed about five evenings a week and the rest of the time she lived in a kind of listless suspension. She prepared Leo’s meals and showed him a vague affection, chattering inconsequently to him if he appeared to expect it, otherwise remaining in a silent dream. He, poor man, was so exhausted by spending an average of nine hours a day giving English lessons, combined with travelling to and from the school and his private pupils’ homes, that he hardly noticed his wife’s changing attitude towards him.”

This group of artists become Flora and Leo’s social circle – although Leo doesn’t like Parker at all. The dynamic is all set to change however, when John goes home to England to marry his fiancé, returning to Barcelona with his new wife Meg.

I realise that I have become such a Comyns fan that I am no longer very objective, but I really enjoyed this, more than I had thought I would – I suppose I feared disappointment. I loved the Spanish setting and so I’m looking forward to more Comyns in Spain with Out of the Red, Into the Blue

See below, the very plain looking, unexciting ex-library edition which I was so excited to buy – well it takes all sorts!

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

My love for Barbara Comyns never seems to diminish – and her books are all ones I know I will re-read. In fact, I am planning on re-reading …Spoons.. one day soon, because it’s so long since I read it. So, when Turnpike books announced they were bringing out two Comyns novels I was delighted. They were kind enough to send me both – The House of Dolls and Mr Fox. I read Mr Fox in an old edition – toward the beginning of last year, probably too recently to re-read it. I loved it though and you can read my review here.

I was glad to have a new edition of The House of Dolls however as my old 1970s paperback has quite small print, and it was the last of the (more easily) available Comyns novels that I had left to read. There are two more Comyns novels which seem impossible to find – and a couple of the others were hard enough to find. (I shall never completely give up looking)

My expectations of this one weren’t high I don’t think, as I had seen it described as being a more minor Comyns – however I thoroughly enjoyed it – and while it may not be quite up there with the likes of The Vet’s Daughter et al – it is still well worth reading. Here we still have Comyns unique voice, her sharp wit and while her world here is less strange than in some of her earlier novels her characters are deliciously peculiar in their own way. Always there is a stream of something a little darker which exists beneath the surface – the knowledge that her characters act the way they do because of poverty, tragedy or plain bad luck in their past.

The setting is a small boarding house in Kensington, the house is run by Amy Doll – who lives in the basement of the house with her daughter Hetty. Upstairs reside four middle aged or elderly ladies who between them and under the direction of two; Berti and Evelyn have established an eccentric kind of bordello for elderly gentlemen – finding a little prostitution on the side really helps to pay the rent.

“‘Amy Doll, are you telling me that all those old girls upstairs are tarts?’

‘Well, not tarts exactly tarts, Doris, but they have gentlemen friends who pay them, you know. It’s not very nice, but they say they couldn’t manage the rent otherwise. I simply had to put it up, with the expenses rising all the time. …’”

Amy is rather concerned at finding herself almost in the position of an unwilling madam – dreading the police will come knocking at the door one day.

Her tenants Evelyn and Berti are both really quite elderly and don’t get along well at all they wear tight trousers, have tightly cropped hair and rather like their drink. Their squabbles are petty, spiteful and all too frequent. The Senora (aka Augustina Puig) – originally from Spain; inhabits the best room and was first to encourage Evelyn and Berti to follow her example of financial management. Ivy Rope is a little younger than the other women and only has one gentleman to make ends meet – she is also in love with a dentist – who she hopes will marry her and take her away from Amy Doll’s house. Berti – who needs to know everything is desperate to find out about the dentist – and takes steps to do so – to poor Ivy’s terror.

The women host little parties in their living room – from which Amy Doll ensures her daughter is barred by locking the door from their part of the house to the upstairs. Hetty is growing up and resents her mother accompanying her to school – and is rather fond of the peculiar old dears in the upstairs part of the house. While Amy is worrying about what to do about her troublesome tenants Hetty plays truant and with the help of a local misfit she calls Glover is making a mosaic in the garden of a derelict house. One day a policeman does knock on Amy’s door – though not for the reasons she fears – and soon he is making himself useful around the garden.

“The policeman looked at the closed little face and smiled. ‘Sorry to disturb you again, but you mentioned you were on your own and I wondered if you’d like any help in the garden. It happens that I’ve been given a few bulbs and rose-bushes and, having no garden myself, I was wondering what to do with them. It’s my free day tomorrow and it’s be a kindness if you’d let me put in a few hours here.’

Amy gave him a quick look, then lowered her lids while she considered his proposition. ‘If he wants to spy on us,’ She thought ‘nothing will stop him, so he might as well make himself useful while he’s about it. I could get him to take down those rusty bells for a start and the lino in the scullery wants re-laying.’ She smiled.”

With The Senora talking about leaving and Ivy maybe getting married Berti and Evelyn are concerned about what they will do. Existing on their small family annuities and their gentlemen callers is hard enough. Now one of their regular gentlemen suddenly dies and Amy is making signs of asking them to vacate their rooms. Berti – hopelessly impractical and a stranger to an oven decides she will sign on at an agency and become a daily cook – asking Amy to help her learn. The results are about what you might expect and beautifully portrayed by Comyns with her perfectly balanced savage wit.

So, unless someone decides to re-issue Birds in Tiny Cages and Out of the Red, Into the Blue – this was the last Comyns I had to read. In one way I am quite bereft – but thankfully I have acquired all the others so I have them to re-read. I envy anyone who has yet to discover the brilliance of Comyns. This was another gem, a little quieter than some of the others but really very good indeed for all that.

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It is difficult to properly convey what it is like to read a Barbara Comyns novel to someone who hasn’t read her before, though I suspect many of you will have read her before. Her easy, straightforward style may seem to have a blasé innocence but there is a lot more going on. Combining matters of middle class domestic poverty – something present in all her fiction – with the unpleasant, cruel, and even macabre at times, she presents her readers with a world which feels slightly skewed, though completely recognisable. The Skin Chairs in the eighth of Comyns’ eleven novels I have read – I have one more tbr – and there are two that I may have to give up ever finding, so rare do they appear to be. It is classic Comyns, the sixth of her novels to be published. 

Frances is the first person narrator of The Skin Chairs, and the novel opens shortly after her tenth birthday. Frances is one of six children and she has been sent to stay with her Lawrence relations for a few weeks while her tired mother has a rest. Soon after her arrival, Frances’ father dies suddenly, plunging the family into quite serious penury. Aunt and Uncle Lawrence are well off, horsey and horribly patronising. Aunt Lawrence is especially rather bullying, and the sensitive Frances frequently finds herself in the wrong. Her cousins: Charles, Ruby and Grace are clearly products of their upbringing, Grace the closest to Frances in age is who Frances spends the most time, but she is capable of childish spite that leaves Frances in tears.

Frances’ mother is obliged to give up the beloved family home and is strongly encouraged by the Lawrences to take a much smaller house nearby called The Hollies. They can’t afford a maid, and so Frances’s older sister Polly undertakes much of the domestic work – seeming more capable and organised than their mother, who is distressed by their new circumstances, rather weak and easily cowed by the likes of Aunt Lawrence. The family are required to spend Sunday lunches with the Lawrences – well just a couple of them are asked each week, a lottery none of them wish to win. Frances’ siblings Esme and John come home from boarding school – new day schools will be attended by them instead. The youngest two are Clare – born with one hand, and Toby.

“One night I dreamt that Mother’s head had been severed and made into a pork pie. Although it was pork pie, I could still see it was a dead head. There was another fearful dream that Father was floating down the canal, all enlarged with water, and that eels were living in him.”

As I said Frances is a sensitive child, beset by disturbing dreams and very observant of the people around her. In the company of her cousin Ruby, Frances meets Vanda, a beautiful young widow with a baby called Jane. The story of Vanda and baby Jane is a typically horrifying Comyns tale. Frances is smitten by the baby, her maternal instincts roused by a child the reader instantly knows is horribly neglected. Frances ranges quite freely around the village and the local area, meeting a host of colourful characters.

It is also with Ruby that Frances is taken to the house where the General lives. A house known primarily for the skin chairs, a set of chairs covered in human skin, poor Frances is horrified and fascinated by these chairs, wondering what happened to the souls of the men whose skin adorns them.

“One chair certainly was lighter than the rest and I carefully sat on it, expecting something strange to happen; but it was exactly like sitting in any other uncomfortable chair. My bare arms touched the back and, remembering what it was made of, I stood up and wiped my arms with my handkerchief. With a feeling of awe I gazed at the chairs thinking of the poor skinless bodies buried somewhere in Africa. Did they ever come to see what had happened to their skins or had they forgotten all about them?”

Frances makes herself a little hide away in an abandoned barn – her own home away from home. The idea of home is clearly something important to Frances. She tries with limited success to keep out of the way of the very odd Mrs Alexander who has taken a liking to Frances. Mrs Alexander drives around in a very conspicuous yellow sports car and keeps pet monkeys – and is generally considered very odd by the villagers. Another new arrival in the village is Mr Blackwell – another individual the Lawrences definitely disapprove of – but who heralds some change for Frances’s family.

This wonderfully quirky Comyns novel that describes an adult world through a child’s eyes is full of odd and surprising images. It joins The Juniper Tree and The Vet’s Daughter in my top three Comyns novels.

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I have come to love Barbara Comyns so much, and this novel took a little finding, why all of her books aren’t in print is inexplicable to me. There are a couple of her books I shall probably never find. I wish someone would re-issue them all.

Comyns breezy matter of fact style is very much in evidence here. Those who have read her before will recognise the tone immediately. Comyns’ novels all reveal sad childhoods, odd, often horrible domestic arrangements uncaring parents, the absurd and the macabre. Yet Comyns style is unique in writing about them, she’s wry, quirky, shielding us in a way from the true darkness at the root of all her stories.

A Touch of Mistletoe is a coming of age novel which follows the changing fortunes of two sisters from their teenage years to middle age. For me there were echoes of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, Mr Fox and Sisters by the River, in the story of Vicky and Blanche.

They grow up in a household similar to those other Comyns households. As the novel opens Blanche and Vicky are discussing their grandfather’s funeral. It is their grandfather’s house they are living in, with their handsome brother Edward and their mother – who enlists their help in scrubbing the floors and drinks – they grew up hearing their mother was often ‘poorly’.

“Our mother rather lost interest in us after the thirst got hold of her and, although our grandfather was vaguely fond of us, he certainly wasn’t interested. Edward was sent to a second or perhaps third-rate school recommended by the vicar and Blanche and I had to make do with ever-changing governesses who seemed to know they were doomed as soon as they arrived and hardly bothered to unpack their boxes. The last one was a Miss Baggot, who was old and finding it difficult to get work; although she was frequently in tears, she stayed for nearly a year. Mother finally hit her with a parasol and she left after that.”

The family lawyer Mr Hobbs is reluctant to let Vicky have the small amount of money she has inherited from her grandfather. The sisters have plans, they are ready for life to start – more than ready to leave home, Vicky is eighteen and Blanche sixteen.

Vicky endures a brief period in Amsterdam working for a woman who breeds dogs. It’s a grim experience, and she leaves broke and with a sceptic hand. In London, Blanche joins a mannequin academy – and when Vicky joins her in the capital the two set up home together, taking a room in a run down street. It is in portraying such settings that Comyns excels, the smells of cabbage soup, poverty the sound of their neighbours through the walls. Vicky enrols in a cheap art school taking instruction in life drawing with a roomful of other students. Charcoal dusted fingers, nude models and drawing paper filled with disappointment. Vicky is very at home in this bohemian world.

Life has begun for them both – a life that will take them in different directions. Blanche is horrified by poverty in a way that Vicky isn’t. The sisters are often hungry, they both get boils, Vicky has spent all her money and has to leave the art school. When Blanche gets the chance to work as a companion to an old lady, she jumps at it – even though it means leaving her sister and moving away. Vicky meanwhile gets a job at a commercial studio.

The novel follows the sisters through several marriages, bereavement motherhood, war and middle age. Vicky is drawn to vulnerable, damaged men. Her first husband Eugene is a wonderfully drawn character – an artist, whose attitude to certain cheap goods on show in shop windows is quite funny – but reveals his erratic moods.

“Often he went out of his way to torture himself by looking at things that would upset him – furniture shops and windows filled with plaster little girls lifting up their skirts and gnomes and monks or demons twisted up in agony. These things were frightful but one could always look the other way. Gene would return home quivering with the horrors he had seen as if it had been cruelty to children or animals. I could tell by the way he walked upstairs if things were wrong. Sometimes I thought I must be insensitive that I did not worry enough about ugliness, unemployment and all the things that upset Gene, but life would have been frightful if we both suffered so much.”

Blanche marries a cold, starchy man with money – desperate to escape the poverty she so fears. The sisters’ lives diverge and come back together again over the years. Life isn’t easy for either of the sisters, for a variety of reasons. By the time we leave them, they are firmly middle aged – and the world is a different place to the one we started off in.  

I loved this – you can probably tell. What a wonderfully unique and endlessly readable Barbara Comyns is – if you come across a copy of this one – snap it up.

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I have come to love Barbara Comyns over the past few years, my adoration perhaps sealed with The Juniper Tree last year, which made my books of the year list. Though I have loved everything I have read by her to date.

Mr Fox was only published in 1987, something like thirty years after it was written (according to the fly leaf in my battered first edition). Comyns style belies the darkness beneath her stories, she is infectiously chatty, and rather naïve, throwing off odd quirky asides with airy frankness. Mr Fox is not quite as dark as Sisters by a River or The Vet’s Daughter, though one can never expect a happy ever after. In this novel – like in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Comyns portrays an unhappy relationship, motherhood, poverty and uncertainty. I’m a little surprised that this novel hasn’t been re-issued more recently along with some of the other Comyns novels, because for me, this is every bit as good as some of her earlier books.

Set just before and during World War Two and depicting an ambiguous relationship between Caroline and Mr Fox – this novel was a perfect fit for the Librarything Virago group’s ‘reading the 1940s’ event, and February’s theme of relationships.

As the novel opens it isn’t long before the start of the war, Caroline Seymour and her little daughter Jenny have recently moved into a flat with Mr Fox. Caroline is aware that the other residents don’t like her because she isn’t married to Mr Fox. We learn that Caroline and Jenny were abandoned by Oliver, Jenny’s father. Caroline’s attempt to earn money letting rooms out in the house her mother left her the lease to; wasn’t successful – all her tenants gave notice. Mr Fox had owned a garage nearby and became a friend and frequent source of worldly advice. Mr Fox is what was once known as a ‘spiv’ – when Caroline first knew him, he would often choose to spend a short spell in prison rather than pay his rates. Caroline isn’t a bad mother – but she does recklessly leave her little three-year-old alone at night – Caroline sits on the bus idly worrying a fire may break out and wondering if she should go back. Caroline is unworldly and sometimes childlike, like other Comyns heroines she is something of an innocent.  

When Mr Fox suggests to Caroline that she and Jenny move in with him – she is a little taken aback by his certainty that she will say yes. However, it all starts to make sense – with the bailiffs terrifying the life out of her, Caroline sees no other option at least in the short term. So, Caroline moves in with a man of often explosive temper – and her neighbours will have nothing to do with her. There is an ambiguity to their relationship – while Caroline feels she has to be up early to make Mr Fox’s breakfast, she appears to sleep only with her daughter.

“Mr Fox didn’t get drunk or keep string under his bed, but he was very moody and sometimes bad-tempered, usually when he was short of money. Then he used to grumble about my cooking and Jenny chattering and about how much we cost him to keep. When he was like this I felt dreadfully sad and homesick and longed to escape from him, but we had nowhere to go.”

As War comes to Europe – Mr Fox is soon heavily involved in the black market. The kitchen cupboards are suspiciously full – and no one in this peculiar little household goes hungry. Mr Fox gets angry more and more often, and Caroline is drawn in to buying and selling pianos through newspaper advertisements, she does quite well. Only, Caroline isn’t very happy with Mr Fox anymore – and so decides to advertise for a job as a live-in cook/housekeeper so she and Jenny can move out.

Mr Fox is a brilliant evocation of World War Two – with air raids, rationing, evacuation and the black market. Comyns view of this new world is so familiar and yet there is always something in her descriptions that takes her reader by surprise.

“You could see them, all the children being herded through the streets with their little bundles and gas-masks bumping on their backs. It made me feel sad. The newspapers were full of war, and an awful lion was always appearing on the Daily Mirror.”

She is employed by one woman she never meets, but whose neighbour; a mother of thirteen, is terribly self-serving – inducing Caroline to hand over various items she swears were promised to her. When that job ends abruptly, she is employed by a terrifying vegetarian – with a spoiled little brat of a daughter who hides her toys from Jenny. Here she is not allowed to drink tea and must endure a healthy herbal drink in the freezing little bedroom she shares with Jenny.

“We had watercress and grated carrot and bread and peanut butter for ‘tea’ and the table had an American cloth instead of a tablecloth. I expect it was more hygienic. It was so cold I felt like crying.”

Mr Fox is still not far away, though I kept hoping something lovely would happen to Caroline, but I suppose that was unrealistic. Dog lovers beware, a rather dear little dog does not survive to the end of the book. I won’t say any more about how things end for Caroline Jenny and Mr Fox, as some of you may not have read this one yourselves yet. This was a real unexpected treat, I perhaps hadn’t expected it to be as good as the others I had read – and I was captivated from the first sentence.

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I love Barbara Comyns writing, her way of looking at the world, is deliciously eccentric. My favourite to date is probably The Juniper Tree – a book I couldn’t stop thinking about. When reading Comyns – one can’t help but wonder where her rather skewed view of the world came from. Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns’ debut novel gives us something of an idea. Although described as a novel, Sister by a River has the taint of memoir about it as Comyns used her first novel to tell the story of her childhood.

It is a story of chaos, genteel poverty, sibling squabbles, unsuitable governesses and antics on the river running past the family home. Her childhood was obviously quite extraordinary. It’s hard to know if Comyns viewed any part of it as happy – but it quite clearly informed her writing and ignited her imagination.

“When we were very young people would sometimes forbid us to play on the path that ran by the river, but it didn’t make any difference, we always did. We used to fall in but were never completely drowned, the village children often were though. There was a family called Drinkwater and no less than five of them were drowned, they were a very poor family, the mother was very handsome and fierce looking, with a figure rather like a withie, which was quite suitable because she stripped the withies on the river bank as her living, most of the village women did and after they were stripped they were made into baskets and cradels.”

(NB spelling errors in quotes entirely deliberate)

The novel is narrated by young Barbara – we see the world through her eyes, and in her words and with her own sometimes eccentric spelling. This narration is odd at times, it is much more like that of an adult recalling childhood than a child themselves.

Barbara is one of six sisters – though one doesn’t appear in the story, as she wouldn’t like it. Told in a series of usually short chapters and vignettes, with titles like – Aunts Arriving, God in the Billiard Room, It wasn’t Nice in the Dressing Room and Mice and Owls, Comyns recreates a childhood full of unreliable adults and the animals that fall foul of them. It is a story that is colourful and strange, told with humour and some affection.

“Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsofilia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’ which was a favourite expression.”

However, Comyns’ light, bright, breezy tone is very deceptive, behind the humour there is a lot that is really rather dark. Comyns wraps that darkness in witty anecdotes but that is her way of talking about times which must have been frequently alarming, unpredictable and sometimes violent, which she is oddly matter of fact about, it’s her way of highlighting an upbringing that must have at times taken its toll.

Barbara’s parents were generally responsible for the violence – towards one another or unwanted animals, they are neglectful and inconsistent allowing the children to run pretty wild. There are plenty of disturbing events, her father threatens to shoot himself, a local child drowns in the river. Barbara’s mother, who went deaf following the birth of her sixth daughter, is vague, their father frequently bad tempered and beset by money worries.

“One evening we elder ones returned rather late after a visit to the cinema, we were all kind of in a coma, degesting the film we had just seen, but we were soon rudely awakened, there was an awful uproar, Mammy was screaming and crying in the morning-room, and Daddy bellowing away like a bull, as we came into the room he hurried out without speaking to us, he locked himself in the billiard-room, always his stronghold during rows. Mammy was in the most frightful state, it was difficult to make out what had happened, she seemed almost crazy, and I felt all sick.”

sistersby a riverThe household reminded me of the Mitfords, though maybe the Mitfords were less dysfunctional. There are unattractive aunts, a messy grandmother whose bedroom smelt of vinegar. None of the adults seem to have much going for them. The elder sister Mary bullies the other sisters badly and Barbara grows up closest to her sister Beatrix. Childhood ends as it must, crashing to a sudden halt when tragedy strikes.

Comyns storytelling is much more than her quirky, humorous anecdotes might have us believe. This is a quick engaging read, not my favourite Comyns but one I couldn’t help thinking a lot about. What, strange and frightening days of childhood lie behind this novel?

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the juniper tree

Barbara Comyns is a fascinating writer; she doesn’t always follow the usual conventions of fiction writing – and for that alone I could love her.

The Juniper Tree is one of her later novels – the setting, the London of the 1980s – albeit the 1980s viewed by Comyns. The 80s of Comyns’ fiction is fairy-tale like – everything exists somewhere outside the usual realms of time and space. There is an odd timelessness to much of The Juniper Tree, the modern world is present glimpsed through piles of dusty antique furniture and ageing knick-knacks of a little antique shop. Comyns is not unlike Angela Carter, their fiction is often unexpected, there is darkness, magic, their worlds seem very slightly out of kilter while being entirely recognisable. Having said that, Comyns is absolutely and entirely herself – and the more of her books I read the more I want to read, re-read and go on reading. I absolutely love her books. She is a strange little genius. I have a book token left over from Christmas still to spend, more Comyns perhaps?

Comyns’ novel The Juniper Tree is based on a Grimm’s fairy-tale of the same name.

My mother she killed me,
My father he ate me,
My sister, little Marlinchen,
Gathered together my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird I am.

Bella Winter; homeless, jobless, a single mother to a biracial toddler, Marline, is in great need of a break. She hasn’t spoken to her indifferent mother in a while – she doesn’t even know she is a grandmother. Bella’s once pretty face has been disfigured in a car accident and she is very conscious of the scar – but Bella has a determination to carry on, to carve out an existence for herself and her child. It isn’t long before Bella has found herself the perfect little life – a job which she is good at, and a home that comes with it. Bella is employed to run a little antiques shop in Twickenham, her daughter installed in a small municipal nursery nearby. Like many other Comyns’ characters Bella didn’t have a happy childhood, growing up in Kilburn, with a mother who blamed her for her father’s disappearance. The shop owner Mary, is soon a good friend, and other new friends soon follow, becoming more family like than anything Bella has known.

“It was a small, impersonal, Kilburn house with stained glass let into the front door and clinkers in the garden. It was furnished with shabby hire-purchase furniture, fully paid for and now almost worn out. The sofa was made of imitation brown leather and when it was hot it stuck to our bottoms, and the dining-room chairs were the same. The general colour scheme was brown, dark green and browny-gold. The only thing that appealed to me in the house was a French gilt clock which had belonged to my mother’s French grandfather. It gently ticked away the hours on the ugly sitting-room mantelshelf. Sometimes it stopped at eight o’clock, but not often or mother would have thrown it out. There was Robinson Crusoe sitting under a palm tree and Man Friday ministering to him and there may have been a sunshade although it seems unlikely. I think it was this clock that started my interest in antiques.”

Bella meets Gertrude and Bernard Forbes, a well-off couple with a large house and an idyllic garden. Bella is drawn into the world of the Forbes’ spending more and more time with Gertrude under the juniper tree in her garden. Gertrude conceives the child that has so long eluded her, and a long, lazy waiting time is spent with Gertrude, Bella and little Marline (Marlinchen to Gertrude – called Tommy by Bella) talking, playing, taking tea and watching the magpies that nest in the juniper tree. Bella spends her week days in the shop, finding she has a real gift for spotting good items when they come in, her evenings are spent cosy and comfortable with her adored little daughter in the rooms above the shop. Weekends are spent with the Forbes – where as Gertrude’s pregnancy progresses Bella becomes more and more of a housekeeper as well as a friend.
In this relationship Bella is largely passive – she respects the opinions of her new friends – eventually contacting her mother as Bernard thinks she should. There is a slight feeling that there is an inequality between Bella and the Forbes, they the possessors of money, property and prestige, Bella has little by comparison and is grateful to be granted their friendship. There’s a creeping sense of dread beneath the story of Bella and her lovely life in the antiques shop – right from the opening pages, when Bella first sees Gertrude in the snow. There is an unreality to it, a dreamlike quality that the reader can never fully shake off.

“Quite soon after I left Richmond station I turned into a quiet street where the snow was almost undisturbed and, climbing higher, I came to a road that appeared to be deserted. Then I noticed a beautiful fair woman standing outside her house like a statue, standing there so still. As I drew nearer I saw that her hands were moving. She was paring an apple out there in the snow and as I passed, looking at her out of the sides of my eyes, the knife slipped, and suddenly there was blood on the snow. She turned and went into her house before I could offer to help. I didn’t like to knock on her door. It was a very private-looking one, painted bottle-green and with heavy brass fittings.”

I really don’t want to talk much more about the actual plot – for risk of spoiling it. (There is so much I want to talk about, but I mustn’t). Comyns really lulls the reader into a false sense of security, for much of the novel things move along pretty smoothly. The novel is very readable, and while the reader might have a vague sense of disquiet about the relationship that has developed between Bella and the Forbes, we are jolted out of our security by an event – which some readers may hate Comyns for.

Part of Comyn’s brilliance (and oddness) for me is in the way she deals with this event and the way the characters act after it. There is even the suggestion of redemption, of a possible future – the terrible thing remains terrible – can never be anything but terrible – and indeed remains with the reader long after – but it isn’t the end of the book, and it isn’t the end for everyone involved either. In this perhaps Comyns is saying something about happy endings, and who gets one and who doesn’t – here again, we certainly can’t accuse Comyns of being conventional.

The Juniper Tree, is a multi-layered novel, beautifully and compellingly told. There is a deceptive simplicity to the telling of this utterly unforgettable book – which I was sorry to finish, it is completely unique. It’s the kind of book I want to thrust into the hand of all my friends – while being a little bit afraid they might stop speaking to me if I did.

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who was changed

Who was Changed and Who was Dead is a novel I have had for some time, and it was probably only because I read The Vet’s Daughter in August that I had even remembered I had it. There must be so many books at the back of the bookcase that I have forgotten about. So, I recently ferreted it out, putting it where I could see it on the bookcase next to my chair.

Comyns doesn’t shy away from dark, possibly unpleasant themes, and yet the execution is so quirky and readable that I can’t say I found it as upsetting as apparently some of the early reviewers did. In her introduction to my Virago edition Ursula Holden – explains how modern readers are perhaps not quite so shocked or squeamish as they once were. I may know some readers who really are a little squeamish, and certainly Barbara Comyns does paint some unpleasant images.

Warwickshire – a little before World War One, and swans swim through the drawing-room windows of Grandmother Willoweed’s house. The river has flooded badly with much of the village submerged, people shelter upstairs. Ebin Willoweed, once a journalist, now lives with his three children in his mother’s house. As the waters rise, he rows his daughters around the submerged garden. The river is a huge influence in the lives of the Willoweed family, and the rest of the village.

“She came to a little wrecked pleasure-steamer, which had become embedded in the mud several summers ago and which no one had bothered to remove. It had been a vulgar, tubby little boat when it used to steam through the water with its handful of holiday-makers, giving shrill whistles at every bend and causing a wash that disturbed the fishermen as they sat peacefully on the banks; but, now it lay sideways in the mud with its gaudy paint all bleached, it was almost beautiful.”

Comyns leaves little to our imaginations – her descriptions are wonderfully vivid. A squealing pig floats away, legs flailing in desperation – the peacocks are all drowned. The flooding of the river heralds far worse to come.

The grandmother rules the house with a fierce tyranny, a tyranny to tries to exert over the whole village – albeit from a distance. She has sworn not to set foot on land which she doesn’t own – she owns a lot of the surrounding farmland. On the rare occasions that the grandmother ventures forth – she is rowed down the river. Locked into a bitter contest with old Ives who works in the garden, over which of them will live longest – the grandmother enjoys the power she has over everyone at Willoweed House.

Ebin’s three children – Emma, Hattie and Dennis – are quite neglected by their father – consumed with this own bitterness – primarily the loss of his career and his resentment toward his mother, they are often left to their own devices. Emma is the eldest – quietly she combs out her long marmalade hair and keeps an eye on her younger siblings. She takes the younger children on picnics, giving them a little of the mothering and happy security she herself hasn’t had.

“After a time Emma opened the picnic basket and they ate honey sandwiches with ants on them and drank the queer tea that always comes from a thermos.”

Ebin is critical of Dennis – and fairly dismissive of Emma, who has little time for him – Hattie is his favourite child, although she isn’t his. Hattie is the child fathered by his late wife’s black lover – though neither her colour or her parentage is ever remarked upon.

Sisters; Eunice and Norah are the maids at Willoweed House, struck with a wicker carpet beater by the grandmother if she thinks they aren’t working. Norah has been helping local gardener Fig’s mother – and has developed a romantic interest in Fig in the process. Fig is taking his time to be convinced, at first resenting Norah’s interference, but Norah is persistent in her quiet, gentle way. Meanwhile, her sister Eunice has been seeing a married man, with the inevitable consequences.

In the days following the flood – death starts to stalk the village – when it seems to be hit by a kind of plague. The miller goes mad and drowns himself, the baker’s wife – who had been having an affair with Ebin, – runs screaming through the village – finally falling to the ground on top of the grandmother’s white cat. There are other cases – disturbing cases, Emma stands listening to the cries of a stricken child from inside a village house.

“Emma and Dennis cringed against a hedge. Besides the shouting there were other most disturbing sounds like some great malevolent animal snorting and grunting, and there was a stench of evilness and sweating, angry bodies. A man with his shirt all hanging out pushed past Emma, and in the moonlight she could see his face all terrible, with loose lips snarling and saliva pouring down his chin. Shrieks of laughter greeted him when he climbed on the thatched roof and shouted and swore down the chimney. Several men carried lanterns, which they wildly waved about their heads and which made a strange and dancing light. Emma and Dennis crept against the hedge, and although they were pushed and jostled, they clung to each other and were not parted.”

A cottage is set alight by frantic neighbours – a man burned to death – where will the madness/plague strike next?

Who was Changed and Who was dead is a little masterpiece. It is a work of a rare imagination, which could certainly be taken as an allegory of the extraordinary and violent madness which was about the sweep the globe in 1914. As well as death, madness and destruction in this novel there is also tenderness, innocence and love.

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It seems I am a little behind, the 10th of September and I am only just reviewing my final book of August.

The Vet’s Daughter is only the second book by Barbara Comyns that I’ve read, the other being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which is a wonderfully quirky, slightly sad little book. Comyns is an interesting writer, her prose is very readable, deceptively simple, yet her stories are visionary and unusual, combining realism and a little surrealism. As a reader one detects a sparkling, lively imagination. Having read the author’s own introduction this Virago edition, I think I can see where this strange slightly out of kilter world comes from.

“I was born in Warwickshire in a house on the banks of the Avon and was one of six children. Our father was a semi-retired managing director of a midland chemical firm. He was an impatient, violent man, alternately spoiling and frightening us. Our mother was many years younger and lived the life of an invalid most of the time. I remember her best lying in a shaded hammock on the lawns, reading and eating cherries, which she was inordinately fond of, or in the winter sitting by the morning-room fire and opening and shutting her hands before the blaze as if to store the heat. Her pet monkey sitting on the fender would be doing the same.”
(Barbara Comyns in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter 1980)

I loved the opening of the novel, which serves to pull the reader immediately into the world of Alice Rowlands, our unforgettable narrator.

“A man with small eyes and ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need of me to say and I saw he was a poor broken down creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee caps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me.’ And left this poor man among the privet hedges.”

Alice is of course the vet’s daughter of the title, and her home life is dominated by her father, a cruel bullying man subject to sudden rages of temper. Alice by comparison to her father is a gentle innocent, her mother cowed by her marriage is very sick, and we know immediately she won’t last long, and Alice will be left alone with her unpredictable father. The house has a dark, sinister atmosphere – and when (on page 6) her father sells a sack of furry creatures – brought to him to be destroyed – to a vivisectionist, the reader can be in no doubt about what kind of man Alice’s father is. Alice’s life is lonely, restrictively dull and uneducated. She longs for romance – for a different life away from her father.

“Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once. Perhaps…”

The only kind person in the vet’s house following Alice’s mother’s death is Mrs Churchill, who works as cook, and with whom Alice spends more and more time. While Alice’s father is away for a few weeks the business of the vet’s surgery is taken care of by Henry Peebles, the first ever man to treat Alice with kindness and consideration. Alice calls him Blinkers to herself, and starts to meet him in secret after her father’s return.

Her father arrived home with a young blonde woman in tow; Rose Fisher – a barmaid from The Trumpet – Mrs Churchill is scandalised by the appearance of a woman she renames ‘the strumpet from the Trumpet.’ Rose claims she will be Mr Rowland’s housekeeper but it seems no one believes that little bit of deception for a second. Rose is an over confident, blowsy young woman, who soon at home at the vet’s house, seeks to re-make young Alice in her own image.

Alice is briefly rescued from her life with her father – by going to live as companion to Henry Peebles’ mother in the countryside. Mrs Peebles is marooned in her own home – terrified of the two servants who run her house to suit their own needs. Alice and Mrs Peebles become friends and Alice is determined to get Henry to dispense with the services of the sinister couple.

“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.”

Alice’s world has been one of constant shocks, and during this turmoil Alice has discovered she a has strange ability – levitation – which over the coming months she practises with. It isn’t long before more change comes – this time to Mrs Peebles’ house, and Alice is obliged to return home to her father. When Mr Rowlands and Rose learn about Alice’s strange ability they seek to exploit it. Alice’s destiny leading to an extraordinary, and probably inevitable moment on Clapham Common.

I really loved this novel, and I am certainly determined to read more – I have a copy of Who was Changed and Who was Dead tbr.

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