Barbara Comyns is a perennial blogosphere favourite. It always seems as though someone is in the process of discovering her. Last year I dipped my toe in and read her semi-autobiographical Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, about her disastrous first marriage to a penniless artist; and Nic read her later and much admired novel The Vet's Daughter. Her mode is a joyous, creepy, deadpan surrealism that makes the experience of reading her equal parts delight and consternation. After the epic grandeur of A Game of Thrones (which I'm still promising myself to write about) and the mundanity of Toast I was in the mood for something offbeat and ever so slightly disconcerting. Which is what I got here and then some. This is the kind of novel in which little girls try to ride their pet rabbits and squash them, literally, to death.
Sisters by a River was Comyns' first novel, published in 1947 and originally written as a series of vignettes to amuse her children. Which is a slightly disturbing thought, given the subject matter. Like Spoons, it is semi-autobiographical, inspired by Comyns' own childhood as the third of five sisters growing up in Bidford-on-Avon in the early 20th century. The setting is the dilapidated and overgrown Shelford Court on the banks of the river, half in the water and half out of it. The mileau is familiar - it has that 1920s feel, complete with tennis parties, village doctors and trips to London for the 'season' - but also entirely unlikely.
Barbara introduces each of her sisters in turn. Plain bossy Mary, the eldest, who insists that each of her sisters wears a particular colour of clothes (Barbara's colour is brown). Then fair, sweet Beatrix, who finds religion in later life and plays the violin and becomes a batchelor girl with a flat. Barbara comes next in the sequence, then the two youngest, who come together as a pair, Kathleen and Chloe. The sisters are born like clockwork, eighteen months apart, and after six babies (there is an unnamed, unsexed sixth child born after Mary and never spoken of) their mother goes deaf suddenly and inexplicably. Barbara suggests, with a child's innocence and a mother's own frustrations, that 'perhaps her subconscious mind couldn't bear the noise of babies crying anymore.' The deafness is a manifestation of the complete disconnect between mother and children - she refuses to hear them and, when she is angry, even refuses to look at their hands when they sign to her. It is parental disaffection expressed as a physical disability, and it has a very real effect on the way the sisters feel about her, the way they see her:
Mammy seemed to loose all contact with us, we never looked on her as a real person, she seldom did anything for us, and if she did she was very selfconscious about it and made us feel all shy, when she talked to us, she would use a special voice, sometimes she would suddenly say 'Come and kiss me' we were awfull embarrised when she did this as were not at all demonstrative and when she felt that way Mammy was very sentermental, other times would be a very fierce and spiteful, thought she seldom hit us, she would say 'How I wish I'd never had you, I never wanted all these children' or 'You are just like you father, I hate you all.'
The spelling errors and grammatical inconsistencies are Comyns' own, retained in the text by the publisher, and become most insistent when she is agitated. There is a lot to be agitated about. The sisters' father is a drunk and deeply in debt, a fact that doesn't escape Barbara even at a young age; their granny is a cantankerous argumentative gorgon of a woman; one of their aunts is locked away in an asylum, the other is unmarried and growing bitter in exile in Falmouth. The marriage between mother and father is not a happy one. Barbara innocently recounts the story of their 'courtship': how her father owned the house in which granny and her mother lived; how he watched her mother grow up, and promised that if she learnt to cook he would marry her when she was old enough; how when she was 12 she cooked him a five course dinner and five years later became his wife. There is a fairytale feel to this story, the way one thing leads to another, and also the way that there are so very few choices and the world is so narrow. Barbara's mother never had a chance; her claustrophobic childhood world ended at the garden gate and Barbara's father was the only man who passed through it.
The struggle for power and autonomy between the couple is set up from the beginning. She chooses her weapons from the arsenal she has at her disposal: she flirts, pretends to have lovers, goes deaf, becomes hysterical. She trundles helplessly along in the grooves that her life has made for her, with no means of escape. Her wider family shun her. Barbara's relations on her mother's side thought the match was beneath her. Her father was a common businessman, successful but still common, and rumour has it that he has 'a touch of the tarbrush' and that he has passed this 'touch' on to his daughters, the implication being that he has black heritage.
Limitations and restrictions, poor choices or no choices. The fact that Barbara spends her early life surrounded by women doesn't change the fact that their lives are a narrow street. Granny is a menacing figure in the book, with her vinegary smell and attic room full of 'junk, spilt fullers earth, and everything all tangled up with hair nets, bits of cotton wool and sweets' but her story, once told, is a sorry one:
But Granny was not always a messy old woman, when she was young she had many admirers, I think she had eighteen proposals of marriage, she was not beautiful, but had great personality and was a fameous horsewoman...unfortunately in a fit of peque (that is what she always said...)she married the least worthy of her suiters; a weak charming man who spent most of his time and Grannies money looking for gold in America, he must have come home sometime because he had seven stillborn sons and my mother, at least Granny had them.
That last line - at least Granny had them - is impressive. Granny looms larger than life in the sisters' world, an object of terror and duty, but is made very small by the shrinking of her grief for seven dead children to the very least part of the story. As she grows old, trapped in her house by a ridiculous fear of Jack the Ripper (the epitome of violence against women) and, like her daughter, estranged from her family because of her poor choice of a husband, she turns into the spiky parody that Barbara remembers. A grouchy mother-in-law, who lives to quarrel with her daughter, and thinks of nothing except what is for lunch. No wonder Barbara's mother refuses to hear a thing, if that is the fate she sees for herself.
Violence, both accidental and intentional, is a constant of life at Shelford Court. Any moments of normality and boredom - those tennis parties and Christmas time - are nothing but a thin skin stretched to breaking point. Some terrible things are done to and suffered by animals - there is a whole chapter dedicated to 'Some sad things to do with animals'. Kittens are decapitated; dogs are shot while they sleep; goats burst. It is no wonder that Barbara is haunted by dreams of decomposing corpses. Her father is an abusive husband, erupting unexpectedly into vindictive rages and charging wildly around firing his pistols. In one terrifying incident he attacks his wife with a hive of bees, the whole family looking on:
Mammy kept saying the wasps had so many nests in the river bank they would surely kill the bees and the hive MUST be moved, and she just when on and on about it moping and mowing and wailing away, and Palmer [the gardener] was growling away to himself, and Daddy swearing not to himself, then he grew awfully fierce and picked up the hive and shook the poor bees all over her she screamed and cried and really tore her hair and ran towards the house casting her bee covered closes as she went, but she didn't die or any thing frightful like that, she only had about ten stings which was a mercy.
Barbara does not, perhaps cannot, say that this is wrong - notice it is 'poor bees' not poor mother, and how her mother is implicated in the blame because of her moping, mowing and wailing - because it is normal for her, but she admits that the thought of bees made her sad after that.
The violence stalks her in her dreams, which are full of 'frightful noises', 'crushing wheels and giant belts' and and those decomposing bodies 'that smelt all sweet and frightful.' She wakes up thinking 'it must be true, everything was disgusting and the world would never get right again, you shook so much your teeth chattered.' It is the closest she comes to saying that she is afraid. All through the book it is difficult to tell whether the narrator speaks with the voice of a child, or whether she is grown-up Barbara speaking in hindsight. In the end the answer is a bit of both, as they co-exist togther: the child who experienced these dreadful disconcerting things, and the adult who is frightened with and for her.
Communication and speech often fails people in Sisters by a River, just as the forms and correct spellings of words often fail Comyns herself. Mother's deafness leads to nonsensical notes left in every room of the house, with several messages on different topics from different days, like a game of Exquisite Corpse. The unlikely juxtapositions on these notes are matched by the unlikely ways that Barbara interprets adult conversations, mishearing or misunderstanding things. When she is very young she struggles to distinguish between different objects or rooms in the house, between her mother and Granny, between gold and silver. She finds it difficult to trust what she sees, which means we must question whether any of her memories are sound, and at the same time illuminates the world from unexpected and insightful angles.
Barbara hides behind the multiple disturbances of the novel, behind all the strange and wonderous and disgusting incidents of her childhood, as though she doesn't want to reveal herself. Only on page 148 does she finally say anything directly about herself, revealing what she likes:
the things that interest me most, besides watching the strange things that people did, were paintings, trying to paint, dogs, reading and lieing in a boat in the sun and fishing.
These seem very ordinary and sedate things for a person who has grown up in such chaotic surroundings but they explain a lot. Sisters by a River is a cacophony of observation and of seeing. The scenes Barbara paints are unusually vivid, and beautiful; and they are the work of someone who has a palate for strangeness, for the surreal, for the dangerous. Whereas usually novels have elements of strangeness that creep in, Sisters by a River has elements of normality. Everyone and everything here is strange and sinister; when it is not strange, when it is not creepy, it is somehow out of place, creepier still. So that when Barbara describes a fairly ordinary Christmas with ordinary Christmas presents and an ordinary dinner we feel slightly off-balance, distrustful. Comyns has so successfully reoriented our vision that we see the world as it might appear refracted through the lens of Bosch or Dali. Or through the wide-open eyes of a child with an unpleasant childhood. I'm sure I agree with the introduction to my Virago edition: this book is a little masterpiece of visionary writing. The Vet's Daughter next.