Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead ~ Barbara Comyns

The Willoweed family is living in Warwickshire, when in the year 1875 a flood inundates the tiny village. The flood is followed by a sickness that takes several of the villagers. Whether the sickness is related to the flood, or is the result of eating some of the baker’s rye bread we just don’t know. At any rate, the lives of the villagers are changed, and this is the simple story of (as the title suggests) those whose lives were changed, and of those who did not survive the flood and the subsequent sickness.

The tone of Comyns’ novel is quickly set: a mix of off-kilter humor and foreboding. Her style is about as simple as they come, and that is not a knock. When it was first published in 1954, it was banned in Ireland. It must have been a different world back then, but the novel certainly is a minimalist, subversive story that hides in plain sight. The core characters are the Willoweed’s: 71-year old and mostly deaf (everyone yells down her ear horn to make themselves heard) Grandma Willoweed, the irascible one; her son Ebin, widowed, a failed writer dependent on his mother, who lost his job as a gossip columnist in London; his three children – 17 year-old Emma and her younger siblings, Hattie and Dennis. Rounding out the extended family (Grandma Willoweed has extensive holdings, and a large household) are the servant-sister-maids, Nora and Eunice.; Old Ives, a sort of major-domo emeritus; and Fig the gardener.

This is a novel where people change and other people die. The story is the “who” of it. But its all fate and happenstance. The way of life is a meandering flood that carries us along until we drown or are thrown up onto dry land. In either case, its pretty much out of our hands. The family dynamics here very much put me in mind of a similar family: The Golovylov Family, also ruled over by a tyrannical matriarch and opposed by a willful, spiteful, but weak son. It’s a slight little book, and deceptively simple. It’s a one-sitting read, but when finished you’ll start thinking of the subtlety of it all.

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