Review: “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead”

Review by Tobias Carroll

Barbara Comyns
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
Dorothy, a publishing project; 193 p.

Late last year, The Rumpus reprinted Brian Evenson’s introduction to Dorothy, a publishing project’s new edition of Barbara Comyns’s 1954 novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Evenson’s endorsement, his enumerations of Comyns’s preferred themes and use of language, and some of the imagery cited all combined to pique this reader’s interest in her work. (A rule of thumb: any writer whose prominent admirers include Graham Greene and Evenson is likely worth your time.) In the span of a few months, I read both Who Was Changed and the NYRB Classics edition of Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, first published in 1959. Both abound with surreal images, horrifically upended familial structures, and invasions of the unreal — they’re books that stay wrapped around odd parts of the mind. It’s unclear if this represents the start of a renewed larger interest in Comyns’s work — the two books mentioned here represent two of the three works of hers presently in print — but in a perfect world, that’s what Evenson’s introduction and an Emily Gould essay for The Awl would represent.

Who Was Changed… follows the fortunes of the Willoweed family in a small English town in the first half of the twentieth century. This edition names the time as “about seventy years ago.” Though The Vet’s Daughter, also set in a nebulous past, does feature some bona fide manifestations of the paranormal, its tone is strikingly realistic in its specifics of the day-to-day lives of its characters. While there are no shortage of surreal and unsettling events in Who Was Changed — the book opens with the aftermath of a flood and shortly afterwards finds the town overtaken by a plague of madness — there turn out to be rational explanations for nearly all of the horrors on display. And yet, of the two, reading Who Was Changed leaves the reader feeling far more unmoored from, well, what is known.

It begins with a house and farm flooded: furniture made buoyant, animals slipping from life in surreal fashion. “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows” is how it opens, and that dislocation never ebbs away. Comyns introduces nearly all of her characters in the novel’s first chapter, leaving it to the reader to ascertain some of their connections, classes, and relationships. Amidst the madness described here, certain subplots develop: illicit romances, concealed affairs, the social fabric of the town turning against some of its members. Ebin Willoweed — stifled writer, uneasy father, and put-upon son — stands as one of the book’s central figures, sometimes acting in opposition to the chaos around him and sometimes feeding from it in an almost reciprocal fashion.

As most of the population succumbs to madness and suicidal impulses, the imagery is shocking in its matter-of-fact descriptions of the irrational: “[The butcher’s] actions became more and more strange. He moved in an odd jerky manner, and appeared to be talking to himself. Then he seemed to have convulsions in his legs, almost as if he was about to do some odd dance, and there was something horribly pathetic about it.” Note the precision laced with ambiguity: appeared to be, seemed to have. It’s that unfulfilled search for an explanation, laced into the prose itself, that makes this passage especially unsettling.

While the violent episodes described here are themselves chaotic, their overall pattern is more inexorable, and the town’s purgative reaction is as horrific in its coldness than any of the inexplicable happenings that preceded it. Equally unsettling is the ambiguity of Ebin’s reclamation of his dignity by enthusiastically documenting the horrors around him.

Comyns’s own prose neatly tracks these characters through exultation, tragedy, and hallucination. Some of her bluntest prose is also her most effective: “[Ebin] felt he was alone with his terror,” for instance, which sums up his feelings as he watches a butcher standing alone on a bridge, methodically sharpening his knife. Both states promised by the novel’s title will come to pass for some of its characters, and yet there’s also levity present. Like much else in this rich and disorienting novel, the fact that certain moments can prompt rueful laughter only adds to the marvelously crafted sense of dislocation found inside.