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Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

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This is the story of the Willoweed family and the English village in which they live. It begins mid-flood, ducks swimming in the drawing-room windows, “quacking their approval” as they sail around the room. “What about my rose beds?” demands Grandmother Willoweed. Her son shouts down her ear-trumpet that the garden is submerged, dead animals everywhere, she will be lucky to get a bunch. Then the miller drowns himself . . . then the butcher slits his throat . . . and a series of gruesome deaths plagues the villagers. The newspaper asks, “Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?” Through it all, Comyns’ unique voice weaves a narrative as wonderful as it is horrible, as beautiful as it is cruel. Originally published in England in 1954, this “overlooked small masterpiece” is a twisted, tragicomic gem.

193 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1954

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About the author

Barbara Comyns

11 books212 followers
Barbara Comyns was educated mainly by governesses until she went to art schools in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Her father was a semi-retired managing director of a Midland chemical firm. She was one of six children and they lived in a house on the banks of the Avon in Warwickshire. She started writing fiction at the age of ten and her first novel, Sisters by a River, was published in 1947. She also worked in an advertising agency, a typewriting bureau, dealt in old cars and antique furniture, bred poodles, converted and let flats, and exhibited pictures in The London Group. She first married in 1931, to an artist, and for the second time in 1945. With her second husband she lived in Spain for eighteen years.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 347 reviews
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
October 20, 2020
There’ll Always Be an England

The saving grace of the English is that they don’t take tragedy all that seriously. Recently this has been shown clearly in the process of leaving the European Union. Everyone agrees it’s been handled badly. But very few are terribly upset. Things will work out. Life will go on. In fact life going on means that there will be any number of replacement problems once this one is resolved. There isn’t likely to be progress but that’s never been a reason for despair.

Comyns wrote when the British Empire, really the English running of it, was disintegrating. The Second World War had depleted the resources of the the average household as well as those of the Treasury. Sociologically the pre-war world of fixed class, unchallenged privilege, and institutional isolation was gone. The Mau Mau were rising up, Suez was preparing to boil over, the IRA started acting bolshy in Armagh, and Alan Turing poisoned himself rather than go to prison for homosexuality. Not many reasons to be cheerful in 1954.

But such conditions are soil for the growth of English wit, dry as both the soil and the wit may be. Comyns‘s wit doesn’t promote the blessings of being English, but the blessings of being able to laugh about being English. She starts from a local tragedy, a flood in the house of the charmingly named but somewhat less than charming Willoweeds, and progresses upwards, if that is the right term, to tragedy on increasingly cosmic levels. The haplessness that appears as inveterately self-destructive along the way is simply an English way of coping that has proven itself effective over centuries. Things pass, tragic things especially. Too bad; how sad; never mind.

What lacks among the English generally, and the Willoweeds in particular, is cooperation. Grandmamá is an abusive tyrant, Father a self-confessed layabout, his children (or at least those he admits as his children) are not particularly happy about the family organisation. The staff of cook, maids, and gardener would generally like to be somewhere else. The household, as a consequence, is less than tidy or hygienic even in normal times, however abnormal those may be.

The village in which the Willoweed house sits is filled with eccentrics with appropriately eccentric occupations: Mrs. Fig, the layer-out of the dead; Lolly Bennet, the incompetent dressmaker; the village cobbler/bookmaker, really suited for neither half of his profession, the three old maids with a pet billy goat; the village drunk, Lumber Splinterbones; and the good doctor Hatt, not the brightest star in the medical firmament, even in the days before the NHS.

There is little charm among them and a sort of shared arrogance that the future will be more or less the past warmed over. Which of course it generally is. And when it isn’t, as all the village-folk will recognise at some point, there wasn’t much could be done anyway. So eccentricities are to be respected. If Grandmamá insists on treading upon only her own farmland to attend a funeral, so be it. And so too with the sexual transgressions that everyone is aware but no one speaks about. The disfigured, drunks, and children are taken as different but accepted for what they are. This is all part of an uneducated, native tolerance at the heart of Englishness. But it must never be mentioned.

Tolerance has its limits of course, for example when the villagers start turning from eccentrics into psychotic zombies. When there are more deaths than in any given episode of Midsomer Murders, the social fabric starts to fray noticeably. The most dreaded malady known to middle England threatens - mass hysteria. Such a condition is known in foreign parts to impede the flow of reliable gossip. One’s network is degraded. It also prevents getting things done in the usual way, like the rituals of death. Worst is that panic provokes mutual exploitation, or rather allows whatever exploitation already in play to be made public. Cats break free of bags. The code of English omertà is broken.

I live in Warwickshire, the cultural stage set for Comyns’s story. I think I may love the county almost as much as she did. But English love isn’t necessarily passionate, no matter how intense it might be. It is, rather better said, enduring. And perhaps not spoken about too freely. There are already enough problems that need ignoring. The Avon still floods. The Commonwealth has turned out to be much less troublesome than the Empire. And Teresa May won’t last forever.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
774 reviews
March 5, 2019

The painting on the cover of the Virago edition of this book is called Dinner on the Hotel Lawn and is one of the panels from Stanley Spencer's Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta series. Spencer's paintings have always appealed to me for their unusual combination of medieval religiosity and modern absurdity so Virago's choice of Spencer for the covers of Barbara Comyns' novels was one I applauded. Comyns and Spencer have a lot in common. Spencer used his native town of Cookham as inspiration throughout his life, and the river Thames on which the town is situated was a big part of that inspiration. I suspect that Barbara Comyns used her home town of Bedford-on-Avon for inspiration too and the Avon must have been close to her heart (an unnamed river plays a big part in this book). The artist and the writer (who was also an artist) are alike in other ways too. Both have a talent for juxtaposing the serious with the ridiculous and both rely on the Bible for their imagery. This book begins with a flood, moves on to a plague, features a mob persecuting a Christ-like figure, and finishes with an almost divine retribution. But don't be put off by such doom-laden themes because the story is essentially a comedy, as well as a subtle satire on the time in which it is set: pre WWI England — coincidentally the period in which Stanley Spencer set many of his paintings though both he and Barbara Comyns did much of their work decades later.
The places and times we grow up in can be very powerful indeed.
Profile Image for karen.
3,976 reviews170k followers
June 6, 2018
this book was a perfect book to read directly after prayer for the dying. when i was reading the o'nan, i kept thinking "this is like an even sadder winesburg, ohio", even though that was a poor comparison. but i still feel that way. this one is closer to what an even more depressing winesburg would be, because it is also funny, which is an element not to be found in the o'nan.

but funny in the way that, as you are laughing, you are horrified.

there are several elements that, bizarrely, occur in both the o'nan and the comyns, causing me to have to pause and think, "okay, did the horse hit his head on the tree in this one or the other??" etc. (it was in the o'nan, in case you are consumed with curiosity):

1) disease tearing through a town killing nearly everybody compounded by an aggressive act of nature (in this case, a flood precedes, but does not cause, the disease)
2) many animal deaths/many human deaths

but there are vast chasms of difference between the two books.

this is not a quietly haunting piece meditating on man's place in God's world, this third-person piece is closer in tone to a book narrated by a child or forrest gump or a god. there is an emotional disconnect between what is happening and the overall tone; it is entirely dispassionate. even the humor is less written than perceived; extracted from the reader themselves.and it is always undercut by the gross, the tainted - ants in the sandwiches, slugs in the water-pump, the corpses of peacocks floating by, the beds full of blood, the slit throat like a smile...but i am not imagining the humor, for all of this.

what's the plot, karen? well, that's the tricky part, innit? this book reads like someone spun a reel of film and picked two arbitrary points at which to cut, and called it a day. the opening scene comes directly after a flood, where the willoweed family and their help are sorting out the living from the dead animals, and setting the house in order. it ends after something major happens that is very briefly touched upon, and then all is summed-up in an 80's movie-style "this person did this and this person became that and this person went "weeee weee weee" all the way home."

in between, all is madness. literally - madness. disease takes over the inhabitants of the town, as one after the other succumbs, goes mad, and frequently kills themselves.did i mention this was funny? it is a sour kind of funny - not madcap or dry or satirical, but genuinely funny, when it's not all madness and death. trust me.

the last chapter seems compressed somehow, which is the only reason this didn't get five stars. i was left a little bewildered at the end of it all. after so much detail to this point, to be left hurriedly, without enough closure or answers... i felt cheapened.

now is the time in the review when we laboriously type out passages from the book. they are at the end so you can read them or not - no matter. i am just offering them here because they give examples of what i have been ineffectually trying to describe.

this is my favorite passage in the book:

when the girls tired of rowing they tied to boat up under a willow tree. it seemed as if they were in a green tent. they sat there for a little time; but the bottom of the boat smelt of fish, so they climbed out and lay on the river bank in the sun. the river breeze rustled the rushes and made a whispering sound. after a time emma opened the picnic basket and they ate honey sandwiches with ants on them and drank the queer tea that always comes from a thermos. when there was no more picnic fare left they lay in the sun again in a straight line, and became very warm and watched dragon-flies. some were light blue, small and elegant; others were a shining green; and there were enormous stripey ones that took large bites out of the water-lily leaves.

as dennis lay in the sun, he thought how pleasant it was having a picnic with emma in charge. he remembered other afternoons when his father had forced him to bathe from the boat, and, when he had clutched at the sides with terrified hands, his father had bashed his fingers with a paddle and laughed and yelled at his struggles in the water. when at last he was allowed to climb back, his teeth used to chatter. that seemed to make his father laugh even more. he used to lie at the bottom of the boat while his father laughed and emma dried him, grumbling at their father as she rubbed him with a towel.so far this year there had not been any of those dreadful bathes.

i was going to type out another passage, until i realized it would amount to typing out nearly two full pages, and you people don't want to read that much, do you? you have holiday cookies to bake me and all. you may as well just go read the book. just know that pages 1-4 (and it is a small book, not typical trade-paper dimensions, so that is indeed roughly 2 pages) are amaaaazing. they are a perfect example of what i was babbling on about before - with the tone and the darkness and the sad fates of the animals.

and later, this:

"he smelt so dreadful, and he crawled..."

Profile Image for Justin Tate.
Author 7 books889 followers
December 14, 2018
A quirky, forgotten classic brought back to print and deservingly so. I'm particularly impressed by Comyns' ability to float among POVs as often as the wind changes without driving me crazy. As they say in the introduction, this novel shouldn't work. Developing an entire town of characters in 200 pages seems like an insurmountably difficult task - and yet here it is.

The plot is infused with tragedy and dark humor and sometimes it's hard to discern which tone she's going for. In any case, there are few to no laugh-out-loud moments. Even still it's hard not to read without a wry grin as the number of dead bodies steadily rise. I don't know that I would categorize it as a must-read, but I do adore its uniqueness.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,178 reviews9,229 followers
February 24, 2022
I wonder if I can go through the whole year reading only three star novels? Results so far : six novels read, six three star ratings.

This jolly black comedy can be encapsulated by the following sentence, spoken by the vast, terrifying Grandmother Willoweed :

My three freak moles have got the moth, although they are in a glass case, and the baker’s wife squashed my little cat; there is so little consideration these days.

Or this one :

I love a beautiful corpse as much as anyone; but there is something about a suicide, especially one with his throat cut.

That is spoken by Mrs Fig, the village layer-out. She has a lot of laying out to do when a sudden epidemic of madness-followed-by-suicide bursts forth in this otherwise picture perfect English village.

I guess this charming wisp of a novel could have been funnier, but also, it could have been less funny.

I was thinking as I read it : I wished Barbara Comyns had written Buddenbrooks instead of Thomas Mann. It would have been so much wittier, and one third the length.

Then I thought - I wish James Joyce had written The Big Sleep - that would have been hilarious. Or I wish Oscar Wilde had written The Brothers Karamazov. Or the scripts for The Sopranos. Or Irvine Welsh had written The Wind in the Willows. Then I lost my train of thought.
Profile Image for Magrat Ajostiernos.
556 reviews3,844 followers
October 7, 2020
Situado a principios del siglo XX en un pueblecillo inglés, Barbara Comyns nos presenta a unos personajes extraños y un ambiente sórdido que pilla por sorpresa.
Una insólita enfermedad asola al pueblo y desata el caos más absoluto, lo que desestabiliza aún más a la familia protagonista compuesta por la pérfida abuela, el zángano padre y los tres vástagos.
Me ha gustado muchísimo el estilo de la autora, cómo con unas pocas pinceladas logra describir a esa gente peculiar pero tan representativa de la raza humana.
Aún siendo una historia tan corta, es una auténtica montaña rusa, me ha gustado muchísimo el humor negro de la autora, esa mezcla de horror y locura que viene entremezclado con ese estilo típicamente inglés.
Al final queda por encima de todo la idea de que las pequeñas comunidades y el ser humano es capaz de sobreponerse a todo, incluso a las situaciones más terribles.
Profile Image for Warwick.
812 reviews14.5k followers
February 24, 2019
Bitter and delicious as dark chocolate, this story is a treat. It is resolutely English, both in its setting – a run-down country estate in Warwickshire – and in its tone of brisk tragic comedy. This is established to great effect in the virtuoso opening scene, which follows the effects of the river flooding:

As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only the cocks alive. The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered in water. The squarked a little; but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared.

‘They drowned’; ‘they died’; ‘they were dead’: there is not a trace of euphemism in Comyns's writing. It's somewhat reminiscent of Nancy Mitford, but without the social snobbery. She is completely unsentimental, and yet her eye for detail makes all of this lively and engaging rather than upsetting. Which is just as well, since the same kind of unsentimentality is soon to be applied to the book's human characters too.

There is something very…cosy about the Willoweed family, their crumbling estate, and their local villagers, which all have a certain Eng. lit. familiarity – but the dark streak in Comyns stops it from becoming indulgent. It is, instead, just enormous fun.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,160 reviews1,920 followers
February 16, 2020
This is set in an English village in the early 1900s, written in 1954. It has the wit and sharpness of Cold Comfort Farm with added corpses. Central to it all is the Willoweed family. A tyrannical grandmother, a son, Ebin who appears to do very little apart from try to avoid his mother and sporadically teach his two younger children, three children Emma, Hattie and Dennis, two maids (Norah and Eunice) and the gardener and handyman Ives who is determined to outlive Mrs Willoweed senior. Hattie is dual heritage, but this does not seem to be an issue and is hardly noted, apart from Ebin wondering where his late wife managed to find a black lover in the middle of rural Warwickshire.
The novel opens with a flood:
“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. Old Ives stood on the veranda steps beating his red bucket with a stick while he called to them, but today they ignored him and floated away white and shinning towards the tennis court…..
Strange objects of pitiful aspect floated past: the bloated image of a drowned sheep, the wool withering about in the water, a white bee-hive with the perplexed bees still around; a new-born pig all pink and dead; and the mournful bodies of the peacocks. It seemed so stark to see such sorrowful things under the blazing sun and blue sky – a mist of rain would have been more fitting.”
The characters are overdrawn and larger than life and some of the action rather surreal. Comyns draws her little community and then throws in something incendiary. The baker introduces a new line of bread made from rye and people in the village become unwell, some have hallucinations, some commit suicide and there are a whole range of other symptoms and quite a number die. Ergot, a fungus which grows on rye, turns out to be the culprit, but everything is changed by the time the source is identified: hence the title.
There is a sort of fairy tale feel to this, albeit refracted via a cracked mirror. The descriptions are vivid:
“As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only the cocks alive. The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered in water. The squawked a little; but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared. “
The river running through the village is at the centre of it all and a certain amount of the action takes place on it, especially as grandmother Willoweed insists on travelling on it. There is a figure who is blamed and sacrificed, a sort of Christ figure, but Comyns often does this in her novels
It is not as shocking today as reviewers found it at the time, although some of the laugh out loud moments really shouldn’t be. I was slightly irritated by the ending and I don’t think it’s as good as The Vet’s Daughter, but it is Comyns and is a good read.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,040 followers
February 7, 2017
I recently purchased books from the Dorothy Project, and one of the books was this one. I had never heard of the author or the book. So there it was, on my shelf, and then a character in another book I just finished, Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller, mentions the book in passing. It was a clear sign that I should read this next.

This is a weird and disturbing book (in a good way) - the town seems to take floods, epidemics, and dead animals (and people) in stride. The baker's wife is running around with other men in town, and she isn't the only one. At the same time, the typical pastoral small-town English novel is going on, so the contrast is entertaining.

I find it amusing that this novel was banned in Ireland (it came out in 1954.) I'd really like to know which part disturbed them the most!
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books768 followers
May 18, 2020

The beginning, with the flooding of an ancestral home on the outskirts of a village, a seemingly regular occurrence, reminded me of The Mill on the Floss. A teenaged girl being part of the family reinforced that impression, but quickly I realized this is no Eliot. There’s no overt narratorial presence, and certainly no moralizing.

After the flood, inside the village, madness then death starts spreading. The malady is described by characters as “contagious” and “an epidemic.” I found it weird that the book had made its way to me at this time, but it soon became apparent those descriptive words are not accurate, at least not in the strictest sense.

The book I mostly thought of as I continued reading was May Sinclair’s The Three Sisters. It also contains an arguably over-the-top depiction of a widowed father; a young doctor of marriageable age; and a deadpan tone. Though Sinclair’s novel was published years before Comyns started writing, both books are set in basically the same time period and end with the same symbol of modernization, of life moving along.
Profile Image for Nate D.
1,578 reviews982 followers
April 28, 2017
First caught my eye via the incredible title, before I realized I'd been meaning to read this for a while. And it's great, the best thing I've read this month, probably. Comyns shares certain peculiarities of tone, observation, and conviction, perhaps, with interwar favorites Jane Bowles and Denton Welch, but seems initially to be taking things into much more phantasmagorical territory. Initially we have the macabre pastoral British landscape, a flood, unexplained public suicides, creeping madness, but everything gives way unexpectedly to realism and sorrow (somehow maintaining, throughout its instances of gruesomeness and loss, a kind of innocence. Strange and surprising and wonderful.
Profile Image for JimZ.
1,000 reviews436 followers
March 26, 2021
This is 1.5 stars for me and it is painful for me to give that low rating. I am a big fan of Barbara Comyns and wish more people would read her. I find her novels to be on the bleak side but the writing to be very good and occasionally she displays a wicked sense of humor. In this novel it was bleak to the extreme and I found absolutely no humor in it. Maybe it was there, but I was so frequently appalled or grossed out by what I was reading I may have missed the humor. 😐

The novel was based at least in part on an incident in France in 1951 in which a number of inhabitants in a town fell ill, some violently, and it was ultimately traced to bad bread, specifically bad rye bread. Ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus. Ergot contains lysergic acid as well as its precursor,[22] ergotamine. Lysergic acid is a precursor for the synthesis of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). There is an article in the British Medical Journal about ergot poisoning, and apparently Barbara Comyns read it: “Ergot poisoning at Pont. St. Esprit” by Dr. Gabbia and Lisbonne and Pourquier, 1951, Volume 650, September 15, pages 650-651.

I am going to be leery of eating rye bread from now on. I have not fallen ill from eating it for over 50 years, but I’d better not take any chances! 🤨

Here is more information about ergot from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergot. All I can say after reading some of it is “good God”! And I thought “Who Was Changed and Who was Dead” was unpleasant! 😲
• In 1722, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great was thwarted in his campaign against the Ottoman Empire as his army, traveling down the Terek steppe, were struck by ergotism and were forced to retreat in order to find edible grains. A diary entry from the time describes that as soon as people ate the poisoned bread they became dizzy, with such strong nerve contractions that those who did not die on the first day found their hands and feet falling off, akin to frostbite.[28] The epidemic was known as Saint Anthony's fire, or ignis sacer, and some historical events, such as the Great Fear in France during the French Revolution have been linked to ergot poisoning.
• An important aspect to the Order of St. Anthony's treatment practices was the exclusion of rye bread and other ergot-containing edibles, which halted the progression of ergotism. There was no known cure for ergotism itself, however there was treatment of the symptoms, which often included blood constriction, nervous disorder, and/or hallucinations; if the sufferer survived the initial poisoning, his limbs would often fall off and he or she would continue to improve in health if they halted consumption of ergot.

I can’t recall any of Comyn’s characters limbs falling off, but there were some gross-out scenes to be sure.

And there was a wicked, wicked grandmother. Not the first Comyns novel to have wicked people…

I find it remarkable that this book was acceptable to some in the mid-1950s. Actually the book was banned in Ireland:
• The book as banned in Ireland under the Censorship of Publications Act. Presumably this was for its power to disgust rather than for reasons of blasphemy or obscenity. Barbara Comyns’ ruthless eye defied squeamishness; nothing it too raw for her consideration. (from Ursula Holden [she wrote an Introduction for the Virago Modern Classics edition]).

This synopsis of the novel is good, it comes from Amazon:
• This is the story of the Willoweed family and the English village in which they live. It begins mid-flood, ducks swimming in the drawing-room windows, "quacking their approval" as they sail around the room. "What about my rose beds?" demands Grandmother Willoweed. Her son shouts down her ear-trumpet that the garden is submerged, dead animals everywhere, she will be lucky to get a bunch. Then the miller drowns himself...then the butcher slits his throat...and a series of gruesome deaths plagues the villagers. The newspaper asks, "Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?" Through it all, Comyns' unique voice weaves a text as wonderful as it is horrible, as beautiful as it is cruel. Originally published in England in 1954, this "overlooked small masterpiece" is a twisted, tragicomic gem.

Oh well, maybe I am a fussbudget. I dunno.

Reviews (everybody LOVED it…I guess I am a fussbudget!)
• Lots of links: http://dorothyproject.com/book/barbar...
Profile Image for Lisa.
95 reviews157 followers
October 30, 2017
A perfect little Hallowe'en treat for gruesome children. It reminded me strangely of The Man Who Loved Children; twisted family dynamics are pitched at you and the author moves on, leaving a sickening afterimage to burn into your eyeballs. Dark genius at work in fairy tale land.

Can you say macabre?
Profile Image for Mariel.
667 reviews1,047 followers
June 11, 2013
As soon as the funeral was over, and before the mourners had hardly left, the uninvited surged into the churchyard to watch the gravedigger fill the grave with clods of clay so recently removed and to examine the dying wreaths. They were accompanied by many dogs.

Grandmother Willoweed commissions a boat to transport her to the funeral of the summer. The rest are a bunch of Johnny come latelys. The doctor's wife finally kicked it after extending her wifely presence beyond the sick room. I'm sure Grandmother Willoweed had a reasonable explanation to believe this funeral prospect so enticing that had nothing at all to do with grief or compassion. That she won't cross lands not owned to her is one of Grandmother Willoweed's eccentricities. If it is for the sake of being a mad cow I can hardly guess (if we are taking bets I am placing my Star Wars collection on this option now). It must come natural to her to read like a check list of stupid mad bitch things to do. The ship will be black and it will carry her body smothered in funeral appropriate attire. She's likened to a crow more often than a bird pie is consumed in a Roald Dahl children's book. I imagined her as one of the Baba Yaga veined witches in a Miyazaki anime. Braids flying and imposing gleeful fisted expressions. She's such a bitch. She probably could fly if she terrorized you long enough into being afraid of her. She's outside your window. Or is that a tree branch in the right conditions against a shade. I wondered how her servant Ives didn't kick her into one of the grave plots, or a garden plot, long before the story reached its conclusion. The grandchildren hate her and her son is a pompous fool. If I had to live with her I would gladly consume a small loaf of (free!) poisoned rye bread from the local cuckolded baker.

The best bit about this book is that it doesn't have a wink winky nudge nudgey bone in its body. I've had it on my real life bookshelf for a while and put off the real life reading of it in case it was too jaunty. I'm not in the mood for jaunty or jocular or jock strap or jesting or joking or jeering. I don't want to be poked with how funny or eccentric stuff is. I THINK this has a reputation as a long distance cousin (or is it an in-law) of Cold Comfort Farm. I haven't read that book in hundreds of years so I couldn't tell you. I do remember a stuffy English miss who could function as an easily identifiable marker on the eye chart amongst the chickens with the heads cut off running around on the cuckoo farm. I probably shouldn't have mentioned that. I was doing better with Miyazaki. I liked the laid back manner of real life workings in the village so there didn't have to be some straight guy working off the comedians effect going on.

Ebin Willoweed "coaches" his children under the thumb of his grandmother. When he can he hides in his room and half ass ponders his life. The cute little nurse he had to let go because she expected to be treated to cigarettes. Did his wife find a black man in their white town to father their last child behind his back? How much his children seem to hate him. The life he lived when he had a wife and fathered his brood of children, when he was a journalist, slid back into his childhood. He slumps down easily without his spine. Enough of Ebin. I felt sympathy with his eldest daughter Emma when she thought that her wimpy father made her hate men. He doesn't mean to do them ill but what comfort is that when you're stuck. Comyns was good at conveying this half assed thought patterns of a faded out ghost of a big man. People feel sorry for him. They feel more tired of him. His mother plots out her bitchiness and yet she also exists on a slime crawling thought pattern that it felt every day life world turning. I liked that. You wouldn't need a rooster in their village. Grandmother Willoweed bullied Ives? Time to get up.

So the bestest parts of the book for me were the every day terrorizing of stupid bitches and useless fathers. Mysterious illnesses and mouth frothing insanity and people dropping off like flies and cats and dogs wasn't as much to me. If you like the sort of thing of people killing cats by falling on top of them, maybe. I can't muster up the kind of enthusiasm needed to say that anything is a ripping good yarn. I liked that it wasn't. The baker never meant to kill anyone. I liked his newly made assistant Toby of the unavoidably scarred face. He used to live there and people didn't stare at him too much, accepted him. He moved to the city where people stared a lot. He felt the cold. When he drifted back home again no one remembered him. It was colder for the difference. Maybe he was looking for people to stare too much. I had the feeling that if you left this village maybe you'd notice the dead dogs phenomena more than if you were in it when it happened. Or maybe it is just me and I am more resistant to humor than I even feared. I hardly laugh any more. It's a relief when I'm not expected to. I was more interested in the servant girl who gets pregnant because she finds it so hard to be good. If the married guy just doesn't laugh when she tells him. Her sister with her simple fantasy of walking on the arm of that boring guy. If that's all you're going to ask for and then you gotta get sick from eating stupid free bread. I didn't laugh but I didn't fake not look away. Emma loved her little brother because he didn't find it so easy to be happy. The rest didn't belong to her. That's rough. The freak accidentalness of how they die doesn't seem to matter then. They had to grow up with the delight in the misery of others. Feckin' Grandmother Willoweed. What a bitch.
Profile Image for Jeff Jackson.
Author 4 books463 followers
September 28, 2012
This novel probably sounds more macabre than it reads: It opens with a disastrous flood and takes place in a small English village beset by a mysterious epidemic of suicides. But once you get past the gruesome knife wounds and floating animal corpses, it's a surprisingly wry and often gentle book. The story circles around several children growing up in a beatific countryside and the turns their lives take during these strange events. Comyns strikes a tone that's between all the expected registers - normalizing the surreal imagery and making the closely observed psychology seem deeply odd. Black humor mixes fluidly with sincere heartache. Imagine a more pastorale Edward Gorey, perhaps. The narrative is leisurely but compact, and more deftly constructed than it might initially seem. As a physical object, this edition is beautifully made.
Profile Image for ❀⊱RoryReads⊰❀.
593 reviews134 followers
July 16, 2021
Other reviewers have compared Barbara Comyns to Shirley Jackson, and they're right to do so. Both authors have a way of describing awful situations and people with detached, pinpoint precision.

The Willoweed family, living in a small English village in 1911, ruled by the tyrannical and cruel Grandmother Willoweed, are beset first by flood and then by an epidemic. Who is changed, who is dead and who escapes has nothing to do with who is good and who is bad. I guess the theme of this story is that it rains on the just and the unjust.

The writing is fantastic; I felt off balance and uncomfortable much of the time, which I suppose was the writers intention. This is well worth reading, if only for the style in which the tale is told.
Profile Image for Josh.
291 reviews148 followers
July 9, 2016
(3.5) An extremely entertaining, weird and funny story about a family that doesn't get along, a tragedy within that same community and what happens in the aftermath of said tragedy. Comyns was a writer with a hugely imaginative mind and this kept me reading without boredom.

Generally, when there is a lot of death and grief I feel a loneliness, a darkness inside. She finds a way to make the act of dying not sad, but a part of the actual entertainment.

Recommended for people who don't take life seriously and want a quick read to pep them up, even through what can usually be perceived as depressing.
Profile Image for Nancy Oakes.
1,920 reviews719 followers
April 26, 2019
4.5 on the five side, because it's a downright brilliant book and I love Barbara Comyns' writing.

much more here (no spoilers at all):

My introduction to the work of Barbara Comyns was her The Vet's Daughter, which I absolutely loved. Like that book, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is disorienting, dark, and filled with small moments of rather wry, black humor that caused instant guilt feelings whenever a laugh escaped. It is also an excellent read, one I went through twice and which I loved even more the second time.

The book begins almost whimsically as this small English village has just suffered a flooding of the river that runs through it at the beginning of June. Ducks are swimming through the windows of a drawing room of the house belonging to the Willoweed family, "quacking their approval," while the maids laugh while chasing a "floating basket filled with eggs" and a child is gleefully "floating a fleet of toy boats" in the dining room of a flooded house. It isn't long, however, until what seems to be cute and cozy makes a change into something darker and foreboding, and the story stays in that mode for the rest of the novel.

Let me just say that you can't skim over any parts of this book because everything, no matter how minor it may seem, has meaning here. This is a novel that mingles and mirrors both landscape and people, the natural world and the "civilized" world. And while it's dark and at times disorienting, it's not all bleak -- while there are a number of people here who seem to thrive on their own self-interest and their own needs, compassion and love are to be found in this village as well. Barbara Comyns is a brilliant writer, at least based on what I've seen here and in her The Vet's Daughter, and it is a true shame that she is not more well known and her works are underappreciated. Seriously, you don't know what you're missing if you haven't read her books. I can recommend this one with no hesitation.

Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,230 reviews451 followers
October 26, 2020
Another strange little book from Barbara Comyns that makes no sense...until it does. Flood, fire, poisonings, mass hysteria in a small village in England in the 1880's. Written so unemotionally that you can't get upset about any of it, but interesting nonetheless. The title says it all, and it strikes me that that could be the subtitle for any book about 2020. Who was changed and who was dead: pandemic, hurricanes, fires, elections, you name it, it describes what's going on right now.
Profile Image for Kathryn.
793 reviews19 followers
March 20, 2011
Listing this book on my humor and literary-horror shelves makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Yet as a word of warning, the humor is very dark, satirical at times, with the entire book meeting in the middle between humor and horror.

This is one of my flirt-finds. There is a young woman who works in the local used book store and I have been lucky enough on more than one ooccasion to approach the register when she is busy flirting with a customer. She tells me to pay some miniscule amount and to not worry about what the sticker on the book actually says, or tax. Really, she means "Leave. Now. I'm lining up dinner plans".

Anyways, on this particular day, I went in with a gift certificate to add to my store credit and was determined to find something worth reading. The books people in my town read tend to have one of only a handful of names on the cover-King/Koontz/Clancy/Steele/Roberts. I could not find anything and decided to grab this book on a whim since I liked the title, but I was unsure of the cost and did not want to pay much. I ended up paying 50 cents. Another reason to feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Having never heard of the author, I let the book sit. I picked it up when I needed something unknown and now I feel so very lucky. My edition begins with a lengthy introduction by Ursula Holden. I read only the first few paragraphs of the introduction before beginning the book as I felt too much was being revealed for something I hoped to be surprised by. After finishing the book, I was curious about the author. Barbara Comyns was a writer/artist who led an interesting life with many ups and downs. Graham Greene was a fan and the latest edition of this book included an introduction written by Brian Evenson, both authors being two of my favorites. If I had not already finished, you can bet I would have started immediately.

This book is a mix of compassion and small-town honesty, focused on an absurd, cruel, kind, and very human family. The town first suffers through a flood and then other worse things begin to happen, things that made me gasp in surprise. There were some terribly disturbing scenes. The Grandmother was a terrifying character, or maybe it was more that I could feel the terror of her family whenever she appeared.

So, this is highly recommended and I'm off to find more by the author.
Profile Image for S̶e̶a̶n̶.
830 reviews316 followers
August 20, 2018

Barbara Comyns is one of those writers who has been on my to-read list for so long that an almost mythic status has been assigned to her name in my mind. Based on reviews I've read through the years I was also uncertain as to what exactly to expect from her books. Sometimes these conditions can set the stage for disappointment when I finally get around to reading a writer's work. Thankfully such was not the case with Comyns. This novel encapsulates small-town domestic life rendered in a peculiar nonplussed style applied indiscriminately to events ranging from the grotesque to the sublime. Shocking to some at the time of its publication (e.g., banned in Ireland in 1954) though less so today, the book's refusal to treat the realities of morbidity and mortality any differently from those of everyday health and happiness is refreshing. The characters, both major and minor, are all drawn to memorable proportions. In particular, the patriarch of the family in focus, Ebin Willoweed, struck me as an anti-protagonist of the type found in novels of John Cowper Powys. Completely self-absorbed and riddled with eccentricities, Willoweed's character yields that incongruous blend of abhorrence and affection in a reader's response that is so rare to experience. As a writer, Comyns strikes me as a steadfast conductor leading a mad orchestra of characters through a hectic yet pitch-perfect piece of music, filled with melodic eddies nested between disharmonic crescendos. And she brings it all to a satisfying conclusion.
Profile Image for Carla Remy.
820 reviews50 followers
June 5, 2015
Morbid Adorable.
Reads like a children's book with a horror plot.
I'm not sure what it means. Is it supposed to be symbolic or not?
I first read this when I was 17. I found the Virago copy in a knock off bin in a mall bookstore. Drawn to the title. It was 1993. This novel was formative for me, I loved it. Probably more than I do now.
Profile Image for Stacy.
37 reviews23 followers
January 1, 2011
Barbara Comyns is absolutely one of my new favorite writers. Her work is so strange, so precise, so ever-so-slightly gruesome. Reading Comyns is a kind of submersion; like lifting your feet from the lake bottom and drifting; like closing your eyes against a grey sky as the water rises around you, lifting your hair, filling your ears, slipping overhead until everything around you is blurred and green. A world recognizable--but barely.

Profile Image for Mariola.
107 reviews26 followers
November 29, 2020
Todo me ha interesado mucho; una familia muy extraña, el pueblo asfixiante , las inundaciones y la enfermedad que se extiende. El tono es irónico y de absoluto desapego emocional. Eso sí, uno cuando acaba el libro queda con cierto desconcierto.
Profile Image for J..
455 reviews180 followers
June 22, 2019
Another perfectly-normal-goes-perfectly-squirrelly outing, from Barbara Comyns, mistress of the slow-dawning catastrophe.

All the curdled norms and propped up pretensions of the Edwardians, and their mystified children, come out to play in a small village. What makes this different from a standard genre version is Comyn's detail, her milieu-drenched sense of the English countryside, the manners and atmosphere. The way time just drifts. And as always, her sense of how children see the same things the adults see but come away with very different views. Childhood Gothic for certain.

Nearly anything specific starts to verge on spoiler here, so I'll just say stick with it in the slow-burn buildup of the first fifty pages or so. Comyns knows how to put it in gear.
This would be a good 'first Comyns' to read; it only gets better and considerably weirder from here.
Profile Image for Doug.
1,935 reviews670 followers
May 10, 2019
On the basis of this, I'd say Comyns seems like the bastard love child of Stella Gibbons and Edward Gorey - the macabre and the droll fighting it out for supremacy. A breezy, entertaining read - my one quibble is that the book was published in 1954 and the beginning states it takes place "About Seventy years ago..." (i.e., 1884) and yet the coronation of George V is mentioned, which took place in 1911!
Profile Image for Ines.
317 reviews185 followers
May 16, 2019
Storia veramente particolare, con personaggi caricaturali e parossistici sino all'estremo......la narrazione è particolarissima e nn sempre si capisce a chi si riferisce l'azione. La storia è tipica inglese con protagonista una famiglia simpaticissima ma trasportata in un mondo dell'assurdo che rasenta il distopico. Piaciuto il libro mi è piaciuto, purtroppo mi ha anche stancato in più parti.
Profile Image for Tania.
725 reviews62 followers
October 16, 2021
I wasn't at all sure what I would make of this novel, the ratings on here are all over the place. Luckily for me, I loved it. Quite dark, and rather bizarre, but pretty great.
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