Barbara Comyns is an author who is always cropping up in admiring tweets and reviews from fellow literature lovers. Yet I have never read her. When Andy Miller tweeted that her 1954 novel is “the best novel about a pandemic that never happened” (or something along those lines) and I discovered it is published by Daunts Book Publishing, the publishing arm of my favourite book shop in the whole wide world, it was a certainty that this would be included in my #readindies reading.
And so the very first Comyns sentence I read is likely to be one of the best …
The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.
Notice the matter-of-fact reporting of a very strange occurrence, the effect of which threw me off balance for a very long time. Which is one way of ensuring that I experienced the same discombobulation as the inhabitants of the English village coping in the aftermath of a sudden summer flood.
There is a sense of adventure: The ducks are very happy – quacking their approval at this new set of circumstances. Yet other injured animals need to be rescued. There are others with no chance of survival. This sets the pattern for the catastrophe that is about to beset the human inhabitants.
Following swiftly behind the flood comes a cluster of spontaneous madness and suicide, some of which are more discrete than others. The widower, Ebin Willowweed, who has been living with two young daughters in his mother’s house since he was widowed, senses an opportunity to rekindle his career as a journalist. There’s always a silver lining for someone somewhere, and Ebin desperately needs something to escape the clutches of his mother, Grandmother Willowweed. Now she has got to be an early candidate for villainness of my 2021 literary year. Just look at this selection of epithets Comys employs at various junctures: “dreadful blackbird”, “horny thumbnails”, “she’s a witch”.
There’s no doubting that Grandmother Willowweed is the personal plague from which Ebin must escape, but what about the epidemic that is affecting others in the village? Comys offers a logical explanation for this, and it is one that really tugs at my heartstrings because fate can be so cruel sometimes. As Ebin – despite the silver lining – will discover.
The title – Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead – applies not only to the Willowweed family in microcosm, but to the entire village for Comys’s tale is also the story of a community: a rural English village, with its local tradespeople, eccentrics, affairs … and animals. While disaster strikes for many, the world continues to turn for others.
Something to bear in mind in 2021. We (as a collective) will get through this.
Founded in 2010, Daunt Books Publishing, is an independent publisher based in London. It grew out of Daunt Books, an independent chain of bookshops in London and the South-East. It aims to publish the finest and most exciting new writing in English and in translation, whether that’s literary fiction – novels and short stories – or narrative non-fiction including essays and memoir. It also publishes modern classics, reviving authors who have been overlooked.