If you’re involved in the same sort of writing universe that I am, you know that there has been a lot of conversation recently around the dearth of women’s bylines in magazines and literary publications. Fellow SLC-grad Anne Hays created quite a stir when she returned her issue of the New Yorker, citing the vast gender gap among its writers. VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts has gotten a lot of press and, more importantly, a lot of editorial responses for their count, which charts the percentages of women contributors in magazines and journals. Around this theme, my friend and UNY co-editor Helen sent me a link to an article called Overlooked and Underread: Five Great Reads by Women on pbs.com. I used the last of a birthday gift certificate to order two of the books. Recently, I completed the first one–Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns.
First of all–hello–that title!!! It immediately called to mind Shirley Jackson for me, which can only be a good thing. Second–the book design of my copy–precious, quirky, gorgeous. Third–the first line is this: “The ducks swam through the drawing room windows.”
Let’s dissect, shall we? Right away, there’s a mystery. Why on earth are ducks swimming through windows? We know the language is simple yet evocative, that there is a taste of the surreal here yet also a straightforwardness. We’re dealing with a house in which there is a drawing room–that evokes a time (thinking about the late 19thC), a place (England–rural enough for there to be ducks), and a certain kind of family (gentile enough–or perhaps just with the pretensions of gentility–to have a drawing room despite the ducks).
We quickly learn that there’s been a great flood (a sad time to be reading about a flood). There is a family helmed by cantankerous matriarch Grandmother Willoweed, who must be spoken to by shouting into a trumpet she holds to her ear and who will not walk on any land that does not belong to her. Her son is Ebin, a dismissed gossip columnist, with three kids: the eldest, Emma, Emma’s beloved little brother Dennis and the youngest girl, Hattie, Ebin’s favorite child even though she is black–a fact explained away by everyone but Ebin, who just wonders where his late wife found a black man to have an affair with. The household’s two maids are major players and there are plenty of important townspeople, from the butcher to the baker to the baker’s disfigured assistant.
Soon after the flood, townspeople start to go mad and die, many by their own hands. The book has a tone all its own–it reads as somewhat of a fairytale or nursery rhyme, yet people slit their own throats, are burned to death, fall upon animals and crush them into bloody messes. It is terribly sad, yet also funny, there are feminist overtones in some places, exploitation, satire, triumph and tragedy.
I definitely suggest that you all go out and read this book–it’s quick and fantastic. I also suggest that you google a certain term once you’re nearing the end of the book–I think you’ll know what I mean when you see it. What I imagine is that, when and where the book was written, it might have been slightly more familiar to readers; knowing what it is adds another layer of understanding to the book.
PBS had a great suggestion this time around–I’m excited to move on the next one!