Who Was Changed and Who Was DeadWho Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns
My rating: 4/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

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
3) View Spoiler »

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 the 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…”


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