Waggish

Barbara Comyns: The Vet’s Daughter

I have sort of an unwritten rule to avoid talking too much about beginnings of books, because I think people focus on them as an excuse for short attention spans. I’ll easily sacrifice the first sentence or the first chapter of a book in exchange for a solid structure and a real thematic coherence, but the trend today seems to be to favor the details over the whole, and what details are more likely to be appreciated than beginnings? Still, The Vet’s Daughter deserves mention for its first paragraph because its oddness is so representative of some of Comyns’ central tactics:

A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. 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 kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, “You must excuse me,” and left this poor man among the privet hedges.

We don’t hear from the man again, and the narrator (a teenage girl named Alice, it turns out) is soon preoccupied by matters inside the vet’s house. The vet is her abusive, alcoholic father, and the story concerns itself with how she copes with him and his wretchedness, including his longstanding mistress, who moves in with them after Alice’s mother dies.

The book is more linear and “normal” than Comyns’ first published novel, Sisters by a River, but they both share an odd gothic quality and a firm, assertive young woman narrator. I think it’s the juxtaposition of those two things that gives Comyns her unique quality. It’s not typical to see such a matter-of-fact narrator facing such outsized characters. There’s no attempt to humanize the father; his monstrousness has its contradictions, but there’s no question, in either the narrator’s mind or the book’s conception, that he is a monster. Yet a girl facing such a character would typically be more passively receptive to her impressions (say, in a Hardy novel, or even in Charlotte Bronte), and Alice is not. She thinks and speaks.

And the first paragraph, even if it doesn’t have much to do plotwise with the rest of the book, sets this up. She engages with the man, perceives his nature, provides for him momentarily, and dispatches him. Even as her thoughts run along a distinct, parallel track, she naturalizes him as part of a landscape, regards his needs, and caters to him as she would to an animal. (It’s this attitude that allows the gothic quality to emerge in the outside world.) Before she meets him, her unspecified thoughts are already elsewhere, which is where she finds her liberation and her autonomy. The central conceit and tragedy of the book is the invasion of her private realm by the outside world; as is made clear, she can survive anything but that. Comyns was evidently luckier.

2 Comments

  1. Hannah Stoneham
    9 March 2010

    thanks for posting this excellent review of one of my favourite novels. You have engaged so deeply and expressed so clearly the central themes of this novel as I see them – and yes the young women who are always central to Comyns’ literature – are always vulnerable and in some sense under attack – and are also isolated – both by their position and their tactics for survival. I read recently a piece where a blogger was comparing this novel to Antonia White and think that there may be something in that in terms of the position of the central heroine – I am thinking of writing a piece in my own blog about this.

    Absoulutely fascinating to read your thoughts.

    Thanks indeed for sharing,

    Hannah

  2. Kitty M.
    16 July 2013

    But the man with the ginger moustache reappears, at the very end of the book! Thank you for this review — I have just “discovered” Barbara Comyns and look forward to reading more of her novels.

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