Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter

Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter was not what I expected, but then, this is my third Comyns novel and none of them have been what I expected. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was my first one, and it was an unsettling mix of a light, breezy tone and dark subject matter. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead remains my favorite Comyns so far; it’s very strange, opening with ducks swimming in and out of drawing room windows and staying on a similar off-beat note. The world of the book seems familiar, but it’s not, quite. The Vet’s Daughter is perhaps more like Our Spoons than Who Was Changed, but it’s darker in tone throughout. But it also veers off in some odd directions, especially in the second half.

It tells the story of Alice, the daughter of the title, who lives in London with her bitter, nasty father and her ailing mother. She’s trying to give her mother as much help as she can, but her mother is on her way out of this world, and now the daughter is going to be left to manage her father on her own as best as she can. She has a friend Lucy, but she can only see her occasionally, and Lucy is deaf, which makes communication difficult. The vet’s practice has sinister aspects to it; a vivisectionist stops by to pick up unwanted animals and many of the animals they keep suffer. There are few bright spots in Alice’s life. One is Mrs. Churchill, who is a companion to the family during and after Alice’s mother’s illness. She provides some needed stability.

Mr. Peebles is not exactly a bright spot in Alice’s life, but he’s a friend and one with some power to provide Alice with much-needed diversions. He is another veterinarian who has helped with the family vet practice, and it becomes clear early on that he is attracted to Alice. It seems as though he might provide an escape, but Alice does not return his feelings. She spends time with him but considers him only a friend, although marriage is always there as a possibility should she get desperate enough. She walks a line between honesty and deception, trying to get what pleasure she can out of his company without leading him on.

All this takes place in the gloomy setting of poverty-stricken London, but this is only the first half of the novel. In the second half Alice heads out toward the English coast to live with Mr. Peebles’s mother. She is a depressed woman living in a house that’s halfway burned to the ground, being cared for by a truly strange, scarily sinister couple, the Gowleys. Alice’s job is to be a companion. She is still isolated here, this time geographically isolated as well as emotionally so, but this job brings some new opportunities with it. Alice learns about the countryside and its ways, and she also learns about sexual desire, as she meets Nicholas, a young, attractive soldier who teaches her how to ice skate and seems to be attracted to her as well. This relationship puts her feelings toward Mr. Peebles in a new light; she knows now what real attraction can be and marriage Mr. Peebles takes on an even duller, bleaker aspect.

I think I’ll stop there with a discussion of the plot, except to say that levitation becomes an important plot point, and I’m trying to figure out what to make of this. Alice had a couple experiences with levitation during her sleep while in London, and it happens again out on the coast. She experiments a bit and discovers she can levitate at will, although it takes a lot of energy and focus. When her father finds out about her ability, it becomes another way he can exploit her, and her life closes in on her again. But what are we supposed to make of this? I first thought she was merely dreaming that she could levitate and that it was a metaphor for her desire for freedom or something like that. But then what I thought was a metaphor becomes real and she actually does have the ability to float up into the air. Of course, it is still a metaphor even though it’s “real” — her ability to levitate only sets her apart and leads to more suffering and despair. The thing that makes her special makes her miserable, and there is no chance for escape, ever.

I’m still not sure what I think of the book as a whole, and I’m looking forward to reading other people’s thoughts. I liked the first person narration; the story is told through Alice’s eyes in her forthright, no-nonsense tone. Alice is so young — only seventeen — and she hasn’t had the chance to do much in her life, but she has seen a lot of suffering. One of the first things she tells us is that “if [my mother] had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.” She describes her father’s cruelties matter-of-factly and without dwelling on the darkness of it all, but there’s a sadness to the tone as well, as though she knows life isn’t ever going to offer much, in spite of her hopes. When Nicholas betrays her, she is not really surprised. But I’m not sure how to integrate the two parts of the book, particularly the very ending. The note the book ends on seems appropriate, but to get there by way of levitation? I’m curious what other people think of the value of bringing in this fantastical? supernatural? element.

But I definitely can conclude that Comyns is a writer I want to read in full. I love how she’s full of surprises and that her novels have so much variety. I love the darkness and twistedness of her worlds, and the way she look at that darkness straight on.

3 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

3 responses to “Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter

  1. This was my first Comyns novel, and I liked it, but the supernatural element took me by surprise as much as it did you. (It was even pictured on the cover of my edition, but I assumed it was a picture from a dream.) There’s certainly a false freedom idea behind it. I think she may be trying to show that even the most extreme power isn’t enough to give a woman in Alice’s situation freedom. If we’re thinking it would take an unearthly power to get her out, we’re wrong because even that isn’t enough.

    I really liked Alice’s narration, too. The resignation to it seemed just right.

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    • My cover (the NYRB one) has what at first seems to be stockings hanging on a line to dry. But the info on the cover says it’s from a painting called “legs and bones.” Anyway, it’s kind of about levitation, but also about disembodiment, which fits the book in all kinds of ways — the strange way her body acts (flying into the air), her betrayal by Nicholas, her general lack of just about any physical comfort. Your point about how even supernatural power won’t save Alice makes a lot of sense.

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  2. I have this book on my TBR shelf and was really looking forward to reading it but all sorts of other things got in the way. Now I want to read it even more than I did before!

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