Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Dorothy, Urbana, 2010

I own this, ordered it from Dorothy, a publishing project.  I have Sarah to thank for writing about this unusual book.

Barbara Comyns’ short novel is the story of the Willoweed family, cranky and forceful Grandmother Willoweed, her unemployed  son  Ebin, and his three children.  Along with their servants and the citizens of the small village where they live, they cope with a disastrous flood and a series of strange deaths.  People die and people change.

In the garden Old Ives was tying up the flowers that had been damaged by the flood.  While he worked he talked to his ducks, who were waddling about hopefully, as it was almost time for the red bucket to be filled with sharps and potato-peelings. Emma dawdled up to him and said:

“Don’t you think, Ives, that we should send a wreath to Grumpy Nan’s funeral?  It’s tomorrow and people seen to be making a great fuss about it.”

“Of course they are making a fuss, her being drowned and all.  It’s a long time since we’ve had a drowning by flood;  it’s an important event in this village.  And don’t you worry about the wreath neither.  I was just telling my ducks as you came along about the pretty wreath I’m going to make this evening.  White Peonies it will be made of, Miss, and little green grapes.  There won’t be another to touch it, will there my dears?” and he turned to the ducks who agreed with him in chorus.  From pages 21/22.

Comyns’ ability to strike a balance between light and dark, in a way that appears effortless,  is somewhat disconcerting.  That is what, for me, makes this little novel so fascinating.  She was clearly a master of  observation, both of human behavior and human relationships, and these observations are expressed in such a clear and direct way that what should be painful and ugly appears almost whimsical, much like a fairytale, not Grimm’s but Disney’s.

I think it is the voices of the Willoweed children, Emma, Hattie and Dennis, that give Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead its light and fanciful tone.  That is the only explanation I have for not being completely creeped out by all the dead animals and the butcher’s suicide, but you’ll have to read it yourself to determine if I’m right.

Please check out Dorothyproject.Com.  This is a quote from their website:

Dorothy, a publishing project is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women. We want to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.

This very small press deserves our support.


Filed under Fiction, Review

10 responses to “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

  1. This definitely sounds strange and unique, and I love that title!

  2. Sounds like an interesting book. Thanks for the review!

  3. I love the idea of strange little books that one can’t get out of one’s head. Will check this one out.

  4. First the Guardian’s mention of The Vest’s Daughter and now your review – I think I will have to read some of her work. I love the title “Who was Changed and Who was Dead”.

    Thanks for the review.

    • Would you like to read the Comyns? I’d love to send it to you if you want it.


      • Would love to read it – how about a trade? Hiroshima is being borrowed by a friend and not available until March and if you didn’t want to wait, I also have The Wrong Blood, The Report, and Language of Trees. Let me know and we can exchange addresses.


  5. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

  6. I’ve recently finished Sisters by the River and it, too, would fit the ideas expressed in Dorothy’s mandate. I actually first read most of it several years ago and absolutely loved it: I immediately wanted to read everything that Barbara Comyns had written! But, simultaneously, I was horrified by parts of the story. And the way in which they were told. This time, even though I knew to expect this, even though I’d had the experience of reading The Vet’s Daughter in between, I still found it a challenging read in many ways. It was amazing and awful. And I’m still planning to read every word she’s written, including this one you’ve just finished (and what a lovely edition it is)!

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