Endless Reads Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

I was filled with glee when I discovered this little book tucked inside the Hobart Journal parcel, and bumped it up in the reading queue.   No disappointments here – it is a strange, spry, funny and unsettling novel, just what I needed after The Little Stranger.

I don’t want to give much away about the plot, so let it suffice to say that it’s a lot of death and mayhem, in a village in Warwickshire. Which, oddly, is where The Little Stranger is also set.  And most of the action also takes place in a big old house too, with a cast of strange characters, some of whom are magnificently unlikable, like the histrionic, plate-throwing, morbid Grandmother Willoweed:

Grandmother Willoweed was pouring herself a glass of port. Both ends of her tongue were protruding – rather a bad sign. When she saw Emma standing there looking so apprehensive, she put her glass down on the sideboard and said, “Doctor Hatt was called away in the middle of my whist drive. His wife  was worse – her nose was bleeding.” She filled her glass from the decanter and gave Emma a strange glance.

“Well people’s noses are always bleeding. You are supposed to put a large key down their back.”

Emma was rather perplexed at her grandmother making such a commotion about such an ordinary happening. Perhaps she was annoyed about the numbers  of the whist drive being upset.

Grandmother Willoweed took a sip of port, and looked with her lizard-like eyes over her glass.

“Well, my dear, a key wouldn’t have been much use in this case; this was a peculiar kind of nosebleed. It went on and on until the bed became filled with blood – at least that is what I heard – it went on and on and the mattress was soaked  and the floor became crimson; it went on and on until Mrs. Hatt died.”

She took another sip of port.

“Yes, Mrs. Hatt is dead now.”  – Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead.

I am trying to think of a way to sum up the style of this novel, and distinctive is the word that comes to mind – not quite colourful a enough though. Apt perhaps? Clouds are ‘curdled’ in a storm-threatening sky. Swans ‘excavate’ the muddy riverbed with their beaks. Comyns’ sharp turns of phrase and propensity for grizzly detail remind me of Roald Dahl, but with a bit more of humanity in them. We are shown the desperation behind the malevolence, the sunlight on the slow river that runs by the end of the garden. It’s a short read that packs in a lot of dazzling, sickening imagery. A lemony slap of a book, perfect for long dull winter days.

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7 Comments

Filed under 2012, book cover, book review, consolations of reading, Endless Reads 2012

7 responses to “Endless Reads Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

  1. A beautiful cover and sounds like an interesting read, nice review, thanks.

  2. Deb

    Sounds like a small book teeming with big ideas. Thanks for the review. It’s wonderful being turned on to these gems from small presses that don’t always get the attention they deserve.

  3. This was the first book I read upon finishing up the 16 for the Tournament of Books. I don’t know if it was the delight of something completely different but I adored it. It reminded me a bit of Shirley Jackson and a bit of Richard Hughes but was always wholly itself. I’ve taken steps to acquire other books by Comyns–I do hope they please me as much.

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