Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is the fourth Barbara Comyns novel that I’ve read. I started with Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, then went to The Vet’s Daughter and after that read The Juniper Tree. My reading of her has been completely haphazard, dictated mostly by which book I happened to come across in a second hand bookshop (except for Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which I got from a friend.)
Although I’d like to do a start-to-finish read of her at some point, I’m quite happy to have read these four in the order that I did because Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was actually somewhat different from the other three. It still felt very much like a Barbara Comyns novel, but it was much starker and more grotesque. I wonder whether it would have unsettled me too much to look for her other work right away, if I had read it first. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Juniper Tree, both unusual novels with elements of this same stark vision and bizarre perspective, seem positively gentle compared to Who Was Changed, and even The Vet’s Daughter doesn’t get as strange and violent.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is about a small village in England and the internal struggles of a particular family (the wealthiest) in the village, but it’s also about a mysterious illness that suddenly affects many of the inhabitants. I’ve lent my copy to a friend so I cannot provide verbatim any of the fantastic descriptions of the villagers becoming ill and going crazy. It’s incredible. Comyns makes it all so horrible and violent. And then once the villagers figure out what’s happening, they burn someone’s house down. That scene is one I will not likely forget soon.
For all of the book’s fantasy, Comyns’s omniscient third-person narrator is straightforward and unemotional, maintaining an almost frighteningly clinical distance from what’s going on. The narrator passes over many of the novel’s gruesome details quite quickly, changing subjects from one sentence to the next. Often the narrator juxtaposes something outrageous with something benign. This narrative technique had a way of making me gasp out loud, like I might be the only one noticing how utterly amiss everything was in this little village. I love that Comyns brought me through the text this way.
Comyns has a way of creating characters with a lurking monstrous side. The father in The Vet’s Daughter and the mother in The Juniper Tree, for example, but in Who Was Changed it is hard to find a character without this monster-within. The grandmother is an absolute caricature (wonderfully done) of an obese tyrant. The father a weakling with a pathologically selfish side. Even Emma, the oldest daughter of the family and the person we are meant to find the most sympathetic, has a way of making unsettling statements and misunderstanding vital situations. The village and the family and the story all end up feeling like a carnival somehow, or a gruesome fairytale, and yet as a reader I was incredibly attached to what was happening. It’s fascinating to me how she manages (and she’s done this in each book) to both reflect and distort reality.
With each book of hers I read, I become more and more impressed with the uniqueness of her style and fictional vision. All of her books are available but several have been re-issued lately (she wrote most of them in the 50s and 60s) and so it feels like the world is going through a little Barbara Comyns revival. I hope this is the case, and I hope it continues.