Monday, August 31, 2009

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

I picked up this book at Housing Works a few months ago during one of their epic sales. It was attractive not only for its publisher, NYRB, but because of the introduction by Kathryn Davis, a writer that I love and whose work I’ve plowed through in the past two years.

Though the introduction is a bit too straightforward and quotes too heavily from Comyn’s own introduction, I’m glad to have read it because Davis uses the perfect word to describe the voice of the book’s main character, Alice: spellbound. Thought the prose is not as eerie as the book’s copy would have you think, especially not for a reader of magic realism or science fiction or new wave fabulism or or or, the voice used feels barely connected to earth and though Alice is quite observational and insightful, her thoughts seem to brush daintily on the grotesqueries of her life and not leave a mark: “It was after breakfast, and I went into the dining-room to clear away the remains of Father’s kippers. The sun came slanting in through the window an touched the mantelpiece, where the monkey’s skull used to lie.”

The story has the structure of a fairy tale with its dead mother and evil stepmother, unpleasant chores and threatening monsters, its hints at uncertain parentage and ladies locked away. But still, there are dogs to be walked, friends to visit and cooking to do and Comyns strikes a good balance between the fantastic and the mundane, moving the story along with believable actions by believable characters. Alice seems like a real young woman, but living in a time long before the 1959 publication, giving the story an otherworldly setting for a modern reader.

My favorite thing about The Vet’s Daughter is the sense of place that Comyns seems to effortlessly set in each phase of the book. Dreamlike, the story leads you through the rooms that Alice inhabits and hint strongly of the characters within. Her father’s house changes from oppressive and horrible while he is there, to curious and comfortable when he is not. Her protector’s house if full of Christmas novelties and cheery but cheap things, but ultimately proves unable to contain Alice’s strangeness. IN a place that is a refuge for Alice, the steel skeleton of the house hints at the sad and strange history of the inhabitants. The detail of Alice’s steps ringing out as she goes down the stairs in that house is mentioned off the cuff, but hints at the hard-to-keep secrets that live there.

I also enjoyed all the natural details Comyns uses. Naming the woodlouse and the cricket, feeling the sun, or lack of it, in every setting and hearing the cries of a deranged parrot or the scratching of a Cochin hen through Alice give her a connection to the earth that is never explicit but contrasts greatly with that of her looming, uncaring and violent veterinarian father. It’s a subtle touch and I really appreciated it.


Uzma said...

I love The Vet's Daughter and am teaching it this semester at the University of Hawaii'i. Happy I came across your blog -- will check out some of the other books on your list. Sarah Waters is another fav.


Carrie said...

Do youknow what is crazy? The New York Public Library has not a single work by Comyns.

How are you using Comyns in your class?

uzma said...

It's sad how little people know of her ... I discovered her book about 16 years ago in grad school and still keep trying to spread the word. It's a course on young female "runaways" -- their different places in different societies. Had a great discussion on what Alice's "levitation" really was.

Check out my blog some time. I talk about another one of my recent discoveries, Betool Khedairi, whose book ABSENT I'm also teaching.

Anonymous said...

Hi - I was s pleased to see this entry as I just love Barbara Comyns and am always mystified as to why she is not better known. I think that you ae bang on about the bizarre "disconnection" between Alice and the world she inhabits - and yet she describes it so touchingly - brilliant. Uzma - I would love to hear what your students made of Alice's levitation!
I have found that Amazon is a great source of Barbara Comyns books - almost all of them are available there. I think that "Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead" is a seriously neglected classic - it manages to combine the everyday and the dreadfully grotesque easily and elegantly. Lovely to hear of other Barbara Comyns fans.

Antonia, London, UK