Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

This is a very quirky novel, at times comic and at others, incredibly dark. The story opens with a disturbing description of a flood sweeping through a village:

Swans were there, their long necks excavating under the dark, muddy water. All around there was  a wheezy creaking noise as the water soaked into unaccustomed places, and in the distance a roar and above it the shouts of men trying to rescue animals from the low-lying fields. A passing pig squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding, and a large flat-bottomed boat followed with men inside. The boat whirled round and round in the fierce current’ but eventually the pig was saved, and squealed even louder.  (p. 1)

The details continue for two more pages, and then we meet Ebin Willoweed and his family, who are a pretty unique group.  His crotchety, outspoken mother is constantly complaining and belittling everyone around her.  He has two daughters, Emma and Hattie, the latter of mixed race.  Ebin also has a young son, Dennis, who he repeatedly refers to as a “cissy.” This is definitely not “Leave it to Beaver.”

And the flood is only the beginning of the hardship that will befall this small village.  People start dying left and right, and no one knows why. Ebin’s already dysfunctional family becomes even more so, drifting from one funeral to the next while still trying to work through a host of family dramas.  How can Ebin become financially and emotionally independent from his controlling mother? Will oldest daughter Emma ever escape?  Can Dennis redeem himself in his father’s eyes?

Barbara Comyns’ very direct writing style takes some getting used to.  Her words are spare, yet the characters and setting are still well drawn.  Once I became accustomed to the writing I turned the pages eagerly, wanting to see what would happen next.  The story was quite surreal.  I hated Ebin’s mother; she made me cringe on more than one occasion.  The novel moved quickly from one event to the next.  A great deal happens in 146 pages, but to me it felt rushed.  I wanted more plot development.  I wanted to be more emotionally invested:  feeling sadder about the tragedies, and laughing harder at the novel’s many humorous moments.  This book is a favorite of Comyns fans, but I enjoyed Our Spoons Came from Woolworths more.

For my review of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, click here.

2 thoughts on “Review: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

  1. One of those authors that I should probably experience but just can’t bring myself to purchase a book by…yet. Flipping through the odd one that I’ve come across at bookshops leaves me uninspired so I was interested to find out what you thought. I think holding off for a bit longer won’t kill me. Thanks for writing your thoughts on this one!

    • Darlene, I don’t think this would be the one to start with! I do plan to read more Comyns though. Some have told me her autobiographical books are better.

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