Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Reviewed by Harriet

Barbara Comyns seems to be enjoying a well-deserved renaissance at the moment. In addition to this one, just published by Daunt Books (with more to come later this year), Turnpike brought out two of her little known novels at the end of last year (see my review of Mr Fox here). Published in 1954, Who Was Changed and Who was Dead is considered by many to be her best novel. I’m not sure whether this is true – I’d probably have voted for The Vet’s Daughter – but in any case it is a remarkable book, which I was delighted to have the opportunity to re-read.

From its strikingly memorable opening sentence, ‘The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows’, we are immediately pulled into a world which is both strange and wholly believable. It’s the first of June, ‘about seventy years ago’, and the village is flooded. Three dead peacocks float round the garden and the hens are committing suicide, dropping one by one from their perches into the flood water. Angry Grandmother Willoweed is fretting about her roses, and wondering when she will get her lunch. Her son Ebin rows his daughters round the garden:

Strange objects of pitiful aspect floated past: the bloated body of a drowned sheep, the wool withering about in the water, a white bee-hive with the perplexed bees still around; a newborn pig, all pink and dead; and the mournful bodies of the peacocks.

The flood waters disappear, not before Grandmother Willoweed has dragged the children under the dining room table to escape a thunderstorm, while demanding that the maids do their job: ‘those lazy bitches must make cocoa’. She is a monstrous tyrant, bullying her servants, her son and her grandchildren, and refusing to walk on land she doesn’t own – later, she is reluctantly forced to allow herself to be carried to a funeral she can’t get out of attending. The whole household is under her thumb, and the main plot of the novel is concerned with how, or if, they will manage to escape from her iron grip and to forge new and more satisfying lives. We will indeed find out by the end who was changed and who was dead.

Meanwhile, however, the village is struck by another, more mysterious, disaster. People start dying. The first is the wife of Dr Hatt, who dies of a sudden and inexplicable nosebleed. The doctor is devastated, looking round dreamily at the funeral mourners: ‘They looked like bloated, sleepy flies at the end of the season. They were imprisoned by tombstones tumbling in all directions’. The subsequent deaths are even more frightening and inexplicable, and mostly involve madness and suicide. Ebin is actually an unwilling witness to one of them in a terrifying scene in which the butcher leaps around on a bridge, shouting and gesticulating, then sharpening his knife on the stones of the bridge before using it to cut his own throat. Ebin is completely traumatised by what he has seen, but later the same day he sits down to write an account of it (‘Mad Village’) which gets published in the newspaper he used to work for, thereby re-launching a career he thought was over and done with.

All this may sound as if Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead might be a grim or depressing novel, but nothing can be further from the truth. It’s often very funny, especially if you like irony and black humour. And there are some peaceful moments amid the chaos. Ebin’s three children, Emma, Hattie and Dennis, manage to enjoy their lives in the idyllic countryside, where they can row on the river and forget the strange occurrences going on around them: Comyns apparently based the village on Bidford-on-Avon, where she grew up. And, unlike many of her other novels, it does have an upbeat ending. 

So it’s partly her ability to mix the everyday with the gothic and grotesque that makes her novels stand out, but most of all it’s her unique style and perspective. Her narrators, whether first or third person, observe and describe the world around them with a curiously objective naivety, even when what they are seeing is potentially upsetting or frightening. If you’ve read her before, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, then you’re in for a treat.

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Harriet is co-founder and co-editor of Shiny New Books.

Barbara Comyns, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (Daunt Books, 2021). 978-1911547846, 214pp., paperback original.

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