Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

★★★★☆ (4/5)

“A paradoxical sense of a world that might want to embrace you lovingly—unless instead it wants to smother you.”

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night

What a curious little book this was. My second read from The Dorothy Project (first being “Vertigo” by Joanna Walsh), “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” by Barbara Comyns fascinated me with its intriguing and poetic title, add to that the cover which was full of promise for the peculiar. On neither account was I disappointed.

The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered in water. They squarked a little; but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared.

Old Ives below said, “It’s a bad thing for the sun to shine on a flood, it draws the dampness back to the sky.

The story starts off with an account of a biblical flood which ravages the house of the Willoweed family. Whimsical details of the deluge open up windows to the characters and their way of life.

She looked like a dreadful old black bird, enormous and horrifying, all weighed down by jet and black plumes and smelling, not of camphor, but chlorodyne.

Grandmother Willoweed is a tyrant despite her pitiable hearing conditions, her son Ebin Willoweed is widowed and under constant duress from his mother. His children Emma, Dennis and Hattie are motherless, with boundless innocent potential and much like their father, are being financially sheltered by their wealthy grandmother.

Dennis often wondered why his father, who seemed to set such store by bravery, was always so cowed by his mother. He thought perhaps it was chivalry

The household also lodges two maids, Eunice and Nora to help with the chores and Old Ives, the gardener, who is as stubborn as the Grandmother as both aim to outlive each other. All family members and servants bear the brunt of the old woman’s callousness which does not subside despite ageing. Together they form the Willoweed household in Warwickshire where the pastoral backdrop plays an important role in transforming their collective as well as individual lives.

The Two Calamities and Their Ends

Besides the shouting there were other most disturbing sounds like some great malevolent animal snorting and grunting, and there was a stench of evilness and sweating, angry bodies

From the very beginning, the novel is permeated with a sense of impending doom. This doom manifests itself twice in the story, altering the course of lives which are inextricably attached to the village. First, the flood inundates half the village, drowning the livestock of many. Its aftermath results in widespread financial dismay. The second misfortune strikes with inadvertent ergot poisoning of rye bread that leads to madness, despair and finally a painful death. The flood claimed many animal lives, and it seems like nature intends to balance out their ratio to humans by taking away many more human lives. Human lives are juxtaposed to animal lives, both man and beast appear to be one in their instincts.

The flood acts as a prelude to the delirium which appears to lay waste to an entire village. This decimation eventually leads to fulfilment of wishes of the Willoweed family members who survive the catastrophe. The power struggles inherent in any family dynamic are finally met with a conclusive end.

Beauty and Death as Parallels

Her audience was rather limited because for many years she had not left her own house and garden…She had an objection to walking or passing over ground that did not belong to her

Comyns puts beauty and death on the same pedestal. Each character is worthy of our sympathy despite their shiftiness and apparent deceit. The Grandmother takes sinister delight in others’ misfortunes but she is granted a reprieve through her deafness which detach her from her immediate surroundings. She exercises extreme control on all family members who await her death patiently, but she is relieved of her awfulness after her death.

“Poor Grandmother,” said Hattie, “I hope she is comfortable in that beautiful box. It doesn’t seem large enough to me. Do you think they have folded her up, Emma?”

Similarly, Ebin’s carelessness is charged with death of his son after which he resumes responsibility for his daughters. He seeks to be rehired as a newspaper columnist which proves to be a life-changing decision.

Similarly, the village undergoes much transformation after half a dozen funerals. Humans prone to revealing their animalistic instincts in terrible situations shed their façade. Of course not everyone becomes good and holy but many are able to display their empathy to those struck with profound grief.

Quite often people would die when the flowers already chosen for them were not in season. Then he made a temporary wreath for them, and months later they received the real one.

Since the writer holds no distinction between beauty and death, cessation of life is dealt with only enough pathos as is required to give impetus to the story. She does not brood over the nature of death which gives the story its movement forward in spite of having no concrete plot.

Effortless Style

He began to dress in a sailor’s fashion. The villagers forgot he had never been to sea, and in time he came to be regarded by all as a retired sailor, until he became known as Old Captain Willoweed

The marvelousness of the book is heavily owed to the simplistic prose Comyns employs in dealing with a town wrecked by misfortune. Minimalist sentences are brought in harmony with the jarring narrative twists that bring about a naturalistic tone of this dark pastoral story.

The stones had been worn away in several places by generations of butchers sharpening their knives on them

Since there are no heroes or villains, no protagonists or antagonists, the story takes shape and form through its mesmerising prose style which is wholly unpretentious. There are instances of morbid humor and moments of tenderness which tease the reader without revealing too much of the intentions behind this story.

As she was lifted from the ground the bloodstained body of the squashed cat was revealed. “That woman has killed my cat,” the old woman declared, as she examined the pitiful little body; and she noted with interest that one eye had been squashed right out of its head, while the other remained almost normal.

All in all, “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” is a wonderful novel in which death, decay and disgust are primed with beauty and wonder. Barbara Comyns strikes a perfect balance between the horrid and the pleasant. Tragedies ensue but life moves on to better pastures. Much like a nightmarish daydream, the novel possesses a remarkable elusiveness in spite of all the loss and tragedy. Within the ending resides a heartfelt promise of endurance and survival which persists through any cataclysmic event.

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