Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Who was changed and who was dead (Comyns) VMC 238

Appropriately, Who was changed and who was dead, begins with a flood. I say appropriately, because I cycled through torrential rain without my waterproofs to get home on Thursday, and felt like I had been through a flood. However, reading Comyn's opening sentence "The ducks swam through the drawing-room window", I knew that I had the perfect book to pass the evening with.

This is partly the story of a family, Emma, Hattie, Denis, their father Ebin, and their grandmother, and partly the story of the village that they live in, which not only suffers a flood but then a horrendous plague. Like the other Comyn's novel I read earlier (Sisters by a river), this is a slightly bizarre tale, although many will be relieved to know that the spelling and grammar in this book follow convention. It is extremely difficult to know how to write about this surreal book, and I don't want to spoil it for those of you who haven't read it. Comyns is extremely accomplished in painting a picture of the family and the village, using witty and clever dialogues and descriptions to bring them to life. The main story is that of the plague, which turns out to have been started by ergot poisoning. Villagers fall mysteriously ill, and others start killing themselves - there is obviously something strange going on. I found this all absolutely enthralling and gripping, and turned page after page (it is a slim volume) in order to find out what.

According to the introduction in the edition that I had (kindly obtained by Oxfordshire libraries from Berkshire libraries), many condemned the book for being "unpleasant", and the book was banned in Ireland under the Censorship of Publications Act. Perhaps this was because of the wide range of issues covered in the book - suicide, death, poisoning, madness, violence - and Comyn's extremely open descriptions of them.

Just one cover to show you...
BTW - Stuck in a book has a review of this title here.


  1. I picked up a copy of this and look forward to reading it (I remember reading Simon's review and being desperate to read it but other books got in the way as is their wont...) I also have The Skin Chairs to look forward to as well as her others.

  2. I have the Vet's Daughter awaiting me on the VMCTBR shelf, but am intrigued by Skin chairs and looking out for a copy!

  3. Sounds intriguing! I have The Skin Chairs but haven't read it yet as I've been a bit unsure about Comyns since I had heard tell she was unconventional to put it nicely. However, a bit of unconventionality can be refreshing so I am going to put aside my preconceptions and give it a go soon-ish..once I'm done with my Antonia Whites I think.

  4. Rachel - she is unconventional but it is refreshing and different. I'm not quite sure which would be a good one to start with; I haven't read Skin chairs yet, and I have Vet's Daughter awaiting me at home. Let me know how you get on with Skin chairs.

  5. So glad you like this, Verity - I must re-read. The opening sentence might be my favourite ever.

  6. The Vet's Daughter coming up next week I feel. It was a wonderful opener.