Sunday, February 15, 2015

Balzac by a Hair!

Our next book will be Honoré de Balzac's Eugénie Grandet. Let's plan to begin the discussion April 1st, before everyone gets busy with Passover or Easter or taxes or the cruelest month or whatever.

 I look forward to the book--I've hardly read any Balzac--and to hearing what you have to say. Thanks to all who voted. Don't forget, anyone can participate.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Let's discuss discussions

Here's something else to consider. We seem to have fallen out of the habit of discussing the books in the forum. Do we want to revive that practice with the next book? Should we start taking our talks over to a, say, private group at Facebook?

Any other suggestions?

Monday, February 02, 2015

Our Next Book

Susan asked me to propose some titles for the next Slaves read-a-long, and I’m happy to oblige.

I chose books I haven’t read in a genre I don’t know well but want to know better: short 19th Century novels. (Here’s hoping Rohan hasn’t read them all…) These books are all about 200 pages and represent five different European languages. Like almost all novels of the period, it seems, they are primarily about the predicament of women at the time.

Vote for your choice in the comments, let’s say by Valentine’s Day. We’ll aim to discuss the book starting April 1st, no foolin’.

Honoré de Balzac—Eugénie Grandet (1833)

“Who is going to marry Eugénie Grandet?” That’s the question at the heart of this novel, one of the first in the sprawling canvas of Balzac’s Comédie humaine. Eugénie’s father, a wealthy miser, has his own answer to the question. But when Eugénie’s orphaned and penniless cousin arrives, she counters with a different one, such that the father’s cunning is matched against the daughter’s determination.

Anne Bronte—Agnes Grey (1847)

Agnes Grey eagerly takes up her post as governess, only to be disabused of that confidence by her unmanageable charges. The novel promises to be about work, though romance is present too, when Agnes meets the local curate.

Theodor Fontane—Irretrievable (1892) (Also translated into English as No Way Back)

Set in Holstein about thirty years before its date of publication when the area still belonged to Denmark, Irretrievable tells the story of a mismatched couple who have been married for 23 years—Count Helmuth Holk is fun loving; his wife Christine is solemn. The two slowly drift apart, a movement exacerbated when the Count is called away to the court. As the copy of one of two recent editions into English puts it, the couple “find themselves in a situation which is nothing they ever wished for but from which they cannot go back.”

Benito Pérez Galdós—Tristana (1892)

Don Lope pays off a friend’s debts, at the same time assuming responsibility for the friend’s orphaned daughter, Tristana. He takes her into his home—and into his bed. Tristana accepts the arrangement willingly enough, at least until she meets a handsome young painter. Soon she surpasses the Don in defiance of convention.

Ivan Turgenev—Home of the Gentry (1859)

“Another’s heart is like a dark forest,” we learn in this novel about a man named Lavretsky who returns to his native Russia after his marriage falls to pieces in Europe. Unsure what to do with himself, Lavretsky visits the estate of his widowed cousin and her two small children. Regret, indecision, and, as the passage about the wilderness of the heart suggests, heartbreak ensue.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Vet's Daughter

Well, that was quite a journey. This 1959 novel by Barbara Comyns starts off seeming like one kind of book, but as it goes on the story gets more and more odd until the oddness is the center of the story. A far-too-realistic novel about a neglected and abused young woman becomes a story of magic, a fairy tale gone awry when her escape route becomes her prison. Maybe, in the end, it’s all one story after all.

Seventeen-year-old Alice lives in a poor South London neighborhood with her father and mother and a menagerie of animals that come and go, sometimes going home and sometimes to the vivisectionist. At his best, her father is cold, but he can also be openly cruel and demanding. Both Alice and her mother seem terrified of displeasing him. When her mother is ill, she pleads with Alice not to tell him that she’d been lying down to rest.

When Alice’s mother dies, Alice’s situation becomes more desperate. She reaches out to one of his colleagues, a man who appear to be in love with her but whom she does not love in return, and he gives her a way out as a companion to his mother, a woman engulfed in grief and living in a partially burned home under the care of terrible couple who take pleasure in treating her poorly.

Alice, meanwhile, discovers an unexpected source of freedom. She realizes that she can float in the air. But just as she’s starting to learn to control and enjoy this ability, it becomes its own prison, with disastrous results.

In trying to work out what this book is actually about, I keep coming back to the fact that her father is a veterinarian, and the women in his home are treated no better than the animals in his care. The fate of the animals in his care seems completely subject to human will, and Alice’s fate is completely subject to the will of others.

At one point in the book, a parrot who lives in Alice’s house because the owners pay the vet to keep it is consigned to a downstairs lavatory because its chatter annoys Rosa, Alice’s father’s new girlfriend. Banished by its real owners, it is then banished again by its caretakers. Alice and the parrot are alike, right down to having their most notable skill become their biggest source of trouble.

Every bit of Alice’s life, even the good parts, is governed by someone else. She has to follow her father’s rules to the letter. The few bits of freedom she has are those he allows or those she sneaks. Her only way to get help is through another man. One man she meets attempts to rape her, and another woos her only to abandon her without a word. She never gets to make a proper choice for herself. She doesn’t have much more freedom than a pet, but she has a human mind.

All of the woman are pets, to some degree. Some are treated well, but hardly any of them get to make their own choices. All are at the mercy of the men who care for them. They may attempt to intercede for one another, but the success of those attempts are still subject to the choices of men.

But how does the turn toward the supernatural fit in with this idea? Maybe Alice’s ability is a way of showing that freedom cannot come through ordinary means. Women’s earthly talents are no good in this universe, so perhaps they need an unearthly talent. Yet, for Alice, that talent is also a prison, turning her into an organ grinder’s monkey. Literally breaking the law of gravity isn’t enough to free her.

 Review also posted at Shelf Love.

Thoughts on The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

"She can't do that, can she?" I asked myself when I reached the last page of Barbara Comyns' 1959 novel The Vet's Daughter. "She can't have a first person past tense narration and then kill off the narrator on the last page! I mean, obviously, she can, but isn't it stooping kind of low?"

Then I looked back a few pages, spotted a one-sentence flashforward whose significance I'd failed to note previously, and all was forgiven. I love dead narrators. Alice Rowland has been playing this card--that she's talking to us from beyond the grave--close to the vest.

Many things are played close to the vest in The Vet's Daughter, leaving the reader at the end not quite sure how we're supposed to interpret certain events, or even certain characters. For example, the novel opens with a description of a "man with small eyes and a ginger moustache" who walks along the street with Alice while she "was thinking of something else. . . . He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee-caps." This man is not seen or mentioned again until the final pages of the book. Clearly Comyns intends the ginger man to serve more purpose than arouse Alice's pity--but what? I can't worry it out.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is the story of Alice Rowland, 17-year-old daughter of an abusive London veterinarian who is more apt to send an unwanted puppy to the vivisectionist for a pound than to put it down humanely as he is supposed to. He's broken Alice's mother's front teeth with a kick in the face, and even worse, her spirit. He mostly ignores Alice since she disappointed him by being born a girl, but she's still frightened of him. Their house is grotesque--dark, smelly, decorated with the rug of a Great Dane's skin and a monkey's jaw, filled with animals in cages that Alice is required to take care of.

One night shortly before Alice's mother, who is dying of cancer, is euthanized against her will by Alice's father, Alice listens to her mother reminisce once again of growing up  on a farm in the mountains of Wales: "Dark brown moss grew in the mere by the farm; and once I saw a little child floating on the surface. She was dead, but I wasn't afraid because she looked so pure floating there, with her eyes open and her blue pinafore gently moving. It was Flora, a little girl who had been missing for three days. . . "

The morning that Alice is told her mother has died, she sees a Jacob's ladder that the sun has made across the floor of her mother's bedroom.

After the funeral, Alice's father goes missing for three weeks. He returns with a barmaid --the strumpet from the Trumpet-- Rosa Fisher (a fisher of men?), who he euphemistically tells Alice will be their housekeeper. Rosa quickly assumes an evil stepmother-like role in Alice's life. One afternoon while fixing their lunch in a steamy hot kitchen Alice imagines--or so she thinks at first--that she is floating above water in the mountains. "This wonderful water world didn't last long because a mist came, and gradually it wasn't there, and something was hurting my head. Somehow I'd managed to fall on the kitchen floor, and knocked my head on a coal scuttle. Coal had got in my hair, but otherwise everything was as it had been before I'd seen the water garden--just boiling beef and steam, and heard Rosa's and Father's voices coming through the wall."

Alice hasn't realized it, but her mother's reflections and death have inspired her to begin levitating. For most of the book, I was prone to read these instances metaphorically, as they happen after times of great psychological distress for Alice. Yet Comyns has Alice read ghost stories and Alice mentions how happy her mother's ghost must be when she leaves home to be a companion on an island for Henry Peebles' mother (Peebles is a kind man who cares for Alice, although she does not particularly want to marry him).  There's no denying that there's something supernatural going on here, especially once you accept the story's being told from beyond the grave.

And after Alice's father decides to exploit her talent, once she has returned home following Mrs. Peebles' suicide, to have her "rise up before all the people on the Common" it becomes clear that Comyns is turning Alice into a Christ figure, parodying the Christ story, since, as a character explains, the beauty in Alice's case is she isn't religious: Alice is given wine to drink and thinks it must be blood; she smells sour bread and cockroaches; she is kept prisoner; she exclaims, "Please God, don't let that happen to me. Father don't make me do this thing. I don't want to be peculiar and different. I want to be an ordinary person. I'll marry Henry Peebles and go away and you needn't see me any more--but don't make me do this terrible thing."

Alice's ordeal is not removed. Alice, in despair and humiliation, is brought in a bride's white dress, in a hearse-like carriage, to rise up and then come "down amongst the people." Trampled by a frightened crowd milling about in circles, she dies. Unlike the man with the ginger mustache, who dies with a terrified expression on his face, at the moment Alice's life is finished, she states, "[F]or the first time in my life I was not afraid."

And now I'm left with the thought: is the man with the small eyes and the ginger mustache a stand-in for the reader? A small-eyed someone Comyns and her characters briefly walk beside while thinking of something else?





The Vet's Daughter--Barbara Comyns


Barbara Comyns’s strange little book The Vet’s Daughter (1959) is narrated by Alice Rowlands, a seventeen-year-old girl who temporarily escapes the desperate circumstances of her home life when she takes a position as companion to an old woman, the mother of one her father’s colleagues. This woman, a Mrs. Peebles, is so sunk into depression or anxiety or ennui or something that she earns Alice’s description of her as “so sadly vague and harmless.”

Mrs. Peebles has survived a house fire, the death of her husband, and even a suicide attempt. A man delivering bread to the house discovered her “limply hanging in the green barn among the apples, and he had the presence of mind to cut her down with a pair of sheers and untie the dreadful rope around her neck.” This passage puts me in mind of the suicide Mr. Valpy, whose death in Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical fragment “A Sketch of the Past” gets fused in the mind of the young Virginia with the image of an apple tree in the garden. More pertinently, it offers a fine sense of Comyns’s calm way with horrible things. Some of that measured quality attaches to the narrator too, though equally characteristic is the gallows sprightliness evident in the sentence that comes right after the description of that macabre discovery: “Sometimes, when I looked at her there appeared to be a sinister brown stain round her neck, and I couldn’t help wondering if her eyes had always been so prominent.” This is funny, but not arch or knowing; mostly it’s discomfiting. Alice’s sentiments here seem almost naïve, but she is neither guileless nor foolish, even though she is almost always at the mercy of others.

Of all the unsettling, even startling things that happen to Alice in The Vet’s Daughter, why is it that the detail I remember most is so benign? Alice’s time with Mrs. Peebles comes to an abrupt end when the old woman—distraught that the couple who have kept house for her, a nasty pair straight out of a Roald Dahl story, have absconded with the silverware—is found drowned, presumably having finally succeeded in killing herself.

A kind policeman questions Alice and, as she has nowhere else to go, takes her in for the night. His house—unlike all the other filthy, dilapidated houses in the book—is “red-bricked and very clean.” (I picture it like the policeman’s house in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, all bachelor ship-shape.) And there’s an unexpected grace note: “Homing pigeons that had failed to return were in a box beside the fire, waiting to be claimed.”

Maybe the reason this image stays with me so strongly is that it’s one of the few homey, domestic, and even hopeful moments in the book. True, these birds are failures, homing pigeons that never made it home. In their dispossession they are rather like Alice. But they seem to have ended up well. Imprisoned, perhaps, or packaged at least, yes, but well looked after, all cozy beside the fire. And surely someone will want them: they are waiting to be claimed, after all. It’s unclear anyone wants Alice, for anything other than abusive or mercenary reasons, except perhaps Mrs. Peebles’s son Henry, Alice’s father’s colleague, the man who arranged for her to look after his mother and who cares a great deal for her even though she can’t bring herself to return the feeling. (In the end, he proves unable or unwilling to save Alice.) The pigeons in their box remind us of so many unhappy animals in the book, especially those in Alice’s father’s care—a term we can only use ironically, since he sells the ones he doesn’t like to a vivisectionist. That’s to say nothing of the ones he has used to furnish his house: a rug from a Great Dane’s skin, a monkey’s skull that sits on the mantelpiece, “a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it” to prop open the door to his study. The house is full of piteous and frantic mewling and screeching and barking—as well as, before long, the tortured cries of Alice’s mother, who dies from a painful, undiagnosed illness.

Whatever their fate, then, the pigeons don’t suffer as these other animals do. Maybe I held on to the image’s intimation of a happier future—the moment someone finally claims the birds—as a corrective to my uneasy suspicion that Alice has had something to do with Mrs. Peeples’s death. And I don’t just mean that in the childish sense of the omnipotence of thoughts: Mrs. Peeples disappears on an afternoon when Alice has fled the house, unable to take the woman’s presence any more (“She became repulsive to me, like some old brown flower”) and the girl feels guilty for having felt that way. I mean it more literally: in the possibility that Alice has done her companion in.

That suspicion might be a way to understand the strange paragraphs—suddenly and unusually narrated in present tense—that describe Alice’s search for Mrs. Peeples. Here’s the first one:

Clank, clank my feet on the stairs; clank, clank on the landing. All the doors are open. One of Mrs. Peeples’s black shoes is caught in the ironwork and abandoned. Through the open doors are rooms with open windows, and it is like a zoo with the animals let loose and escaped. No one is there. “Mrs. Peeples, where are you?” Where are you? Not upstairs or below, or in the garden where you never went. Where are you? For a long time I look for her, even in the green shed, but she isn’t there hanging from the roof with the rope cutting into her brown neck.

The garden where you never went. It’s as if Alice knows she is already dead. The odd syntax of the final sentence, which paints the picture of the death it claims to disavow, doesn’t make the scene any less creepy. And why is Alice saying to herself (“Where are you?”) what she has already said out loud? In the end, I don’t think Alice has really killed Mrs. Peeples. Instead it’s as though she’s in a fugue state here, which is a pretty good description of the whole atmosphere of this strange little novel.

*

So who is this Barbara Comyns and where did she come from? The US edition includes a short introduction by Comyns, reprinted from a British reprint from the 1980s. (It is the fate of writers like Comyns always to be reprinted, always to be rediscovered.) Comyns gives us a rather helter-skelter autobiography. We learn of a violent father who went through the family fortune, an invalid mother who suddenly, unaccountably went deaf, a series of unlikely governesses. Her childhood seems to have been both privileged and hardscrabble. Later came art school and two marriages and a whole series of odd jobs, in advertising and in real estate, as an artist’s model and a refurbisher of cars. Throughout she kept writing, though with only middling success, it seems.

It’s heartening anyone published her at all, so odd is her prose (at least based on this book). I remember once in graduate school, having recently discovered Henry Green, another unusual English writer of the mid twentieth century, telling one of my advisors that I wanted to include him in my dissertation. She was generally speaking encouraging of my project (as well as unusually well read for an academic). But talking with her made me nervous and prone to prattle on. I remember saying to her, rather grandiosely, that Green wasn’t like anyone else, it was as if he’d dropped to earth from the moon, to which she tartly responded that no one dropped from the moon, that he wasn’t so unusual as all that, that he had his context like anyone else. I think now that this is true. And reading Comyns I was reminded of a number of other wonderful, more or less minor British writers from about the same time. There’s something of Jean Rhys in Comyns’s portrayal of the hopelessness felt by young women (though Alice, and perhaps even her deaf friend Lucy, who flits intriguingly along the margins of the novel, is more resourceful than Rhys’s protagonists). I caught echoes of Richard Hughes’s hallucinatory portrayal of childhood in A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and of Rebecca West’s matter-of-fact inclusion of supernatural elements in her amazing The Fountain Overflows (1957). (It’s probably no accident that these last two titles, like The Vet’s Daughter, are published by NYRB Classics.)  Sometimes Comyns reminded me of Penelope Fitzgerald, in the obliquity of both her narrative structure and her own biography. (Fitzgerald kept herself and her family afloat by taking all sorts of odd jobs, too.) I even caught an anticipatory hint of early Ian McEwan—The Vet’s Daughter is like a less macabre Cement Garden (1978). And those are just the writers I know: I’ve a hunch, that Comyns might be like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Muriel Spark, though I haven’t actually read them yet.

So Comyns might not be sui generis. But I don’t think I was entirely wrong in thinking (wishing?) that Henry Green, or Barbara Comyns, or any similar writer, the ones that slink through the supposedly dull and genteel world of twentieth century British fiction like feral cats, is an alien, weird figure. However romantic or idealized, that way of thinking might keep us alive to the wonder of such writers. And in literary historical terms it can help us see that realism only ostensibly triumphed in the fiction of the period. In reality, a perverse, fantastic, Gothic strain runs throughout it. I’m thinking, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, of writers as seemingly different as Elizabeth Bowen, Doris Lessing, and Daphne du Maurier. (Importantly, I suspect, the weirdness that disrupts these novels almost always manifests itself in depictions of children.)

In The Vet’s Daughter the clearest example of this strangeness—the oddest, most unsettling thing in this odd, unsettling book—is Alice’s sudden ability to levitate, or, as she prefers to call it, to float. One night Alice finds herself rising out of her bed and she knows she isn’t dreaming because she hits her head on a sconce that is still cracked in the morning. She is as surprised by this turn of events as we are. But the novel takes it in stride. It quickly becomes clear that we aren’t to take the floating as a hallucination on her part or a metaphor on the novel’s (her way of rising above the unhappy events of her life, say). Alice’s ability is both ordinary (when she cautiously asks Mrs. Peeples if she has ever heard of anything like it the woman says she believes it used to be quite common) and extraordinary (it fills everyone who sees it with horror, even disgust). I like that the novel doesn’t try to explain it away, or use it as a way to redeem or transform Alice’s mostly grim and unhappy life. Indeed, it’s not long before someone—her father, the very man who hatefully said he hoped he would never see her again—tries to profit from Alice’s ability. He arranges a public demonstration, doubtless the first step on a tour that, Alice sees all too clearly, will make her into a freak show exhibit.

In a marvelously ambivalent ending, though, these plans are foiled. Alice’s appearance in the air above Clapham Common causes a riot in which three people, including Alice herself, are killed. The first person narration comes abruptly to an end, her fate given to us through a newspaper report. The bitter irony of the book’s end fits with its way of ruthlessly undermining anything nice or good that happens to Alice: a boy she falls for, who teaches her to skate, throws her over; Henry, Mrs. Peebles’s kind son, doesn’t come when she calls him in her hour of greatest need.

Perhaps surprisingly, given what I’ve said, The Vet’s Daughter isn’t unrelievedly bleak, but it’s hardly easy going. You can see why I needed to hold on to those pigeons, and to think of them as rescued. But the book whetted my interest in Comyns’s other books, even though I’ll need to take a deep breath first.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Definitely Floating": Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter


And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I'd left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn't touch it in case it made me fall to the ground.
What a strange, and strangely compelling, novel The Vet's Daughter is! It seems like a grimly realistic story at first, with its details about the sordid life of eponymous Alice, her coarse, brutal father, and her sad mother, doubled up with a pain that only makes her husband despise her the more: "For Christ's sake, woman, send for a doctor; and, if he can't put you right, keep out of my sight!" It continues in what seems like a straightforward enough way, with her mother's decline and death, and then the arrival of Rosa, the wicked would-be stepmother. It's an unrelentingly dark story with a gothic atmosphere only rendered stranger by the constant presence of the vet's patients:

At night I was all alone in the house. Although I slept with my head under the bedclothes, I could hear awful creakings on the stairs, and sometimes I thought I could hear whisperings by my bed. I asked Mrs. Churchill if she would stay and keep me company; but she said her husband didn't like her to be out at night, and she had 'our Vera's' boy staying with her while his mother was in hospital. One night the dogs started barking and yelping and I thought something terrible really had happened. I lay in bed shivering, too afraid to go and see if the house were on fire, or if burglars were creeping through the pantry window. In the morning I found the cage that contained the old cock with the diseased eye had fallen to the ground, and the bird was dead and heavy.

 Things only get stranger, and grimmer, as the novel goes on -- and then just when you wonder whether Alice has hit rock bottom, she rises -- quite literally -- to the top:

In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me -- and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought, 'I mustn't break the glass globe.' I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I'd been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn't a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.

It's possible to move past this moment and assume that, Alice's own conviction (and the physical evidence) notwithstanding, it was a dream . . . except that it keeps happening: she keeps "floating" above the dreary circumstances that she seems so powerless to change, above the disappointments that follow so bitterly one after another, above the people who fail her or leave her or just don't love her. Her levitation brings no levity to the novel, though it is darkly comical. For instance, when she asks her one ally, her admirer Henry Peebles, "if it was unusual for people to sometimes rise into the air when they were resting in their beds -- particularly in strange beds" he is understandably "very slow in understanding what I meant"; when she decides to show her false lover Nicholas that she "can do things others can't do" he watches her rise, horrified, and then "in a scared and awful whisper" tells her to "Stop it, stop it, I say!"

Alice can rise above her life but not leave it behind; it seems only fitting that the last indignity she suffers is having her gift used against her, and poetic justice that her final fall should precipitate destruction. The novel has the tautness of a fairy tale and the patness of an allegory. Though it ends up not being a realist novel, though, it's very specific about Alice's oppression and her psychic suffering: its critique is perhaps more resonant and devastating because it resorts to fantasy rather than offering restitution or resolution.

The Vet's Daughter is the first Comyns novel I've read and it definitely makes me want to read more (I've got Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead in my Virago collection). Her prose is not elaborate or florid but her turns of phrase are remarkably satisfying and often surprising. The very first line of The Vet's Daughter is actually a good example: "A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else." Aren't you immediately curious, both about the man's business with her and about what she was thinking when he interrupted? I see that the other two novels also have brilliant, irresistible starts: "The ducks swam through the drawing-room window," begins Who Was Changed, while Our Spoons opens "I told Helen my story and she went home and cried." The Vet's Daughter also shows that Comyns can do vivid, tactile description, full of the kinds of little details that make a scene particular, and also scenes full of dramatic action, fear, and pathos -- such as the terrible attempted rape, after which Alice -- bruised and bleeding, stands in the street and thinks "There is no hope for me -- no hope at all."

The Vet's Daughter is at once compact and suggestive: it is dense with details that feel meaningful, and meaningfully connected, but whose meaning is not immediately transparent. Why, for instance, is Alice's father a vet? I don't mean literally, in terms of the plot, of course: is there something about his meticulous care for animals (his skill as a vet is often mentioned) that helps us understand Alice's place in the world? Why does Alice call Henry "Blinkers"? What doesn't he see? How does his mother's life or death reflect Alice's situation? What exactly is Nicholas's role -- if he even exists? Does any of it happen the way Alice says it does, in fact? I found myself thinking that it would teach very well: it's eerie and fast-paced enough to catch students' attention and puzzling enough to keep it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Barbara Comyns's The Vet's Daughter

Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter was not what I expected, but then, this is my third Comyns novel and none of them have been what I expected. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was my first one, and it was an unsettling mix of a light, breezy tone and dark subject matter. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead remains my favorite Comyns so far; it’s very strange, opening with ducks swimming in and out of drawing room windows and staying on a similar off-beat note. The world of the book seems familiar, but it’s not, quite. The Vet’s Daughter is perhaps more like Our Spoons than Who Was Changed, but it’s darker in tone throughout. But it also veers off in some odd directions, especially in the second half.
It tells the story of Alice, the daughter of the title, who lives in London with her bitter, nasty father and her ailing mother. She’s trying to give her mother as much help as she can, but her mother is on her way out of this world, and now the daughter is going to be left to manage her father on her own as best as she can. She has a friend Lucy, but she can only see her occasionally, and Lucy is deaf, which makes communication difficult. The vet’s practice has sinister aspects to it; a vivisectionist stops by to pick up unwanted animals and many of the animals they keep suffer. There are few bright spots in Alice’s life. One is Mrs. Churchill, who is a companion to the family during and after Alice’s mother’s illness. She provides some needed stability.
Mr. Peebles is not exactly a bright spot in Alice’s life, but he’s a friend and one with some power to provide Alice with much-needed diversions. He is another veterinarian who has helped with the family vet practice, and it becomes clear early on that he is attracted to Alice. It seems as though he might provide an escape, but Alice does not return his feelings. She spends time with him but considers him only a friend, although marriage is always there as a possibility should she get desperate enough. She walks a line between honesty and deception, trying to get what pleasure she can out of his company without leading him on.
All this takes place in the gloomy setting of poverty-stricken London, but this is only the first half of the novel. In the second half Alice heads out toward the English coast to live with Mr. Peebles’s mother. She is a depressed woman living in a house that’s halfway burned to the ground, being cared for by a truly strange, scarily sinister couple, the Gowleys. Alice’s job is to be a companion. She is still isolated here, this time geographically isolated as well as emotionally so, but this job brings some new opportunities with it. Alice learns about the countryside and its ways, and she also learns about sexual desire, as she meets Nicholas, a young, attractive soldier who teaches her how to ice skate and seems to be attracted to her as well. This relationship puts her feelings toward Mr. Peebles in a new light; she knows now what real attraction can be and marriage Mr. Peebles takes on an even duller, bleaker aspect.
I think I’ll stop there with a discussion of the plot, except to say that levitation becomes an important plot point, and I’m trying to figure out what to make of this. Alice had a couple experiences with levitation during her sleep while in London, and it happens again out on the coast. She experiments a bit and discovers she can levitate at will, although it takes a lot of energy and focus. When her father finds out about her ability, it becomes another way he can exploit her, and her life closes in on her again. But what are we supposed to make of this? I first thought she was merely dreaming that she could levitate and that it was a metaphor for her desire for freedom or something like that. But then what I thought was a metaphor becomes real and she actually does have the ability to float up into the air. Of course, it is still a metaphor even though it’s “real” — her ability to levitate only sets her apart and leads to more suffering and despair. The thing that makes her special makes her miserable, and there is no chance for escape, ever.
I’m still not sure what I think of the book as a whole, and I’m looking forward to reading other people’s thoughts. I liked the first person narration; the story is told through Alice’s eyes in her forthright, no-nonsense tone. Alice is so young — only seventeen — and she hasn’t had the chance to do much in her life, but she has seen a lot of suffering. One of the first things she tells us is that “if [my mother] had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.” She describes her father’s cruelties matter-of-factly and without dwelling on the darkness of it all, but there’s a sadness to the tone as well, as though she knows life isn’t ever going to offer much, in spite of her hopes. When Nicholas betrays her, she is not really surprised. But I’m not sure how to integrate the two parts of the book, particularly the very ending. The note the book ends on seems appropriate, but to get there by way of levitation? I’m curious what other people think of the value of bringing in this fantastical? supernatural? element.
But I definitely can conclude that Comyns is a writer I want to read in full. I love how she’s full of surprises and that her novels have so much variety. I love the darkness and twistedness of her worlds, and the way she look at that darkness straight on.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

It's Unanimous! Our next pick: The Vet's Daughter

The voting is finished, and the choice is in: we'll be reading Barbara Comyns's novel The Vet's Daughter as our next pick. The discussion will begin on January 15th. Everyone is welcome to join in!