Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Claire Fuller. Fuller’s first novel Our Endless Numbered Days will be released by Tin House books on March 17th. Fuller’s mysterious and captivating novel travels with Peggy Hillcoat who, at the age of eight, is taken from her home by her survivalist father to live in the forest. Here, she shares her big love for Barbara Comyns.
I like to collect book titles* and Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is one of my favorites. First published in 1954, this short book tells the story of the Willoweed family’s involvement in a series of macabre deaths in an English village in 1911. I was introduced to Barbara Comyns’s books by my husband who owns four of them. I loved their off-beat sangfroid writing style so much I sought out all of Comyns’s fiction, and her one memoir.
The first line of Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead—“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows’—is an excellent foretaste of what is to come. Grandmother Willoweed has vowed not to walk off her own property (when she wants to go to a funeral she get around this by going in a boat); her hen-pecked son, Ebin, dreams only of escaping; a cat is squashed by a falling woman; the butcher slits his throat with his own knives; chickens and pigs drown. Most of the characters I love to hate, apart from the three Willoweed children – Emma, Hattie and Dennis.
Peculiar things happen on every page, but what makes me love it, is Barbara Comyns’s dead-pan way of writing about English eccentrics. Everything is written in beautifully clear prose as if each outrageous event is an everyday occurrence and when Comyns suspects her reader is becoming complacent, she will slip in a simple line or two at the end of a chapter to bring us up short:
“…Emma almost hated her father and was disgusted and terrified of her grandmother. The only person she had to love was Dennis – and the dim lovers of her imagination.
That evening the baker’s wife ran down the village street in a tattered pink nightgown. She screamed as she ran.”
Similar to We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson, or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but for adults, this book looks at life (and death) from a skewed angle. But it’s not all grimness and horror – characters are sometimes nice to each other. The scenes when Emma cares for her younger siblings, taking them to the river with picnics of ‘honey sandwiches with ants on them’ and ‘queer tea that always comes from a thermos,’ are very tender. And when Dennis can no longer look after the grass he plants in a little bowl and cuts with scissors, his sisters sit on his windowsill and cry together.
Writers are told to be careful with point of view; it shouldn’t jump too often from one character’s head to another, or the reader will be lost. But in Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, Comyns breaks all the rules. It is written like a game of relay: When one character passes another in the street the narrative and the point of view is handed over; when a character thinks about someone else that person picks up the point of view baton. And it works. I am never lost.
I have re-read it several times and have found only two things to be wrong with it: it’s too short – it is over in a few hours. And I think you should assume that quite a few animals were hurt in the writing of it.
*Below are some of my other favorite book titles. What are yours?
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
We Were The Mulvaneys
Behind the Scenes at the Museum
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
Love in the Time of Cholera