Review: The Vet’s Daughter & Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns seems to be the only author I can read at the moment, I’ve read both The Vet’s Daughter and Sisters by a River in the space of a week. Both are short novellas containing Comyns usual bleak, of sometimes magical, realism.

In The Vet’s Daughter, Alice Rowlands – a product of a depressing and abusive marriage – moves from ignored daughter to occult sideshow. Her mother dies, consumed by her terrible marriage. Much as in Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, Alice’s father sucks the life from his wife. Once dead, her father moves in his mistress, which results in a horrific turn of events. There are occasions where Alice can be saved from the events that unfold. However, her desire to experience life and her sexuality punish her.

Sisters by a River was less engaging, but somehow hooked me regardless. As Barbara tells us the story of her childhood, filled with misspellings and bitter-sweet tales, you fall can’t help but feel for this family as it begins to decay. Once again the parents are useless tyrants, more concerned with their own toils (a theme I have come to recognise in the Comyns books I’ve read thus far). I found myself well within the protagonists mind, disliking and liking her siblings and parents as and when she did. It ends with a break in her idyll, a move far from home, and a family of her own. The best thing that could have happened was to break from her family, and yet the moment it happens you can’t help but feel as broken and dilapidated as her childhood home. My family and I left my childhood home at 18, and it holds so many memories I don’t even like to go past it now.

I adore how Comyns highlights the plight and situation of women in her era, or earlier. It’s so blunt – ‘this is how it is and I can’t change it’. You have the characters resigned, mostly resigned, to their fate, while as you read you feel more and more uncomfortable with what is happening.

Have you read any Comyns before? I recommend beginning with Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, if you haven’t.

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5 Comments on "Review: The Vet’s Daughter & Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns"

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Fleur in her World
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I love The Vet’s Daughter, and Sisters by a River too, but rather less. Let’s hope Virago sees fit to reissue her other books sometime soon.

Alex
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I’ve not read Comyns but I do remember the publicity when ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ came out. I wonder if it’s still in print?

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