The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

The Vet's Daughter - Barbara ComynsThe Vet’s Daughter – Barbara Comyns
NYRB Classics, 2003 (Originally published 1959)
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You may remember that I felt some trepidation about this book. Having read the reviews of Claire and Polly, I expected this book to be oppressive, dealing with a horrible and tough subject matter. And while that is true, it was also not that hard to read, for various reasons. In the end, I thought The Vet’s Daughter was beautiful, even if I’m still not sure about the rather strange ending.

The Vet’s Daughter is a story about Alice Rowlands, told through her eyes, about her life with her cruel father, her dejected and sad mother, and later on her small steps towards a better life.

Her father’s cruelty is portrayed from the start. The scene of Alice’s life is set, really, as soon as you read the second paragraph:

I entered the house. It was my home and it smelt of animals, although there was lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.

Barbara Comyns uses exactly the right words to describe the circumstances Alice finds herself in, which makes the setting extra sinister: she uses sparse wording, Alice Rowlands observations are matter of fact, detached and never over the top. This makes that her father becomes even more truly horrible, because he never becomes a cartoon evil character, but instead has little glimpses of humanity left in him.

Comyns sucked me into the story, and I followed her lead into these oppressive circumstances willingly. I was even quite ready to believe Alice’s wonder and acceptance of the strange ability she discovers in herself. And, until the last few pages, I wanted to rate this 5 stars, proclaim it a favourite. But then the final denouement happened, and it wasn’t that this was even more strange per se, but something about it left me a little unsatisfied, left me feeling that I would have needed a few more words, another paragraph perhaps. Because everything happened in such a rush and was so surreal that I am still not sure what to think.

But perhaps this is the way Comyns likes you to feel? It is almost as if The Vet’s Daughter is the surreal opposite of a fairytale. And even if I still feel confused by its ending, I know that I will want to come back for more, reread this, and read other books by Comyns too.

I read The Vet’s Daughter as part of the NYRB-Project.

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9 responses to “The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

  1. I’ve been wanting to read this book for ages but it’s not available where I lived. I remember even looking in Holland for it. I guess I’ll just have to order it. Love your review.

  2. I’ve been dying to read more by Comyns after I read Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (recommended and sent to me by Simon T) which really impressed me. I love her darkly gothic yet humorous style. This is already on my list:)

  3. It is really a nod to the author if they can write about something so dark yet still make the experience an enjoyable one, and make you want to come back for more. I’m going to do some more research on this lady.

  4. Really interesting to hear your thoughts on this, especially about the ending. That was a highlight for me but it is certainly quirky!

  5. Wonderful review, I’m always so pleased to see Comyns mentioned in the blogosphere – twas I who persuaded Polly to give her a go, and Sakura, as she mentions! This is my second favourite of her novels, after Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead – I love that odd gift of hers, although I agree the ending comes out of nowhere, I quite liked it.

    We wrote very similar things about her father, by the way – one of the most awful characters in fiction, I reckon, simply because he’s believable. If you fancy reading my thoughts, they’re here: http://stuck-in-a-book.blogspot.com/2010/06/vets-daughter.html

  6. What happened at the end? Was it ambiguous, or just confusing? I do not love confusing endings but I ferociously love ambiguous endings.

  7. I’ve only read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, which is fabulous. I’ve been wanting to read more. You make this sound very enticing, although I don’t like an unsatisfying ending: it makes me feel a little cheated, as if I’ve trusted the writer and stuck with her or him, but he or she has let me down. I shall have to seek it out, nevertheless.

  8. You have me very intrigued! I’ve never read any Barbara Comyns, but I am seriously curious about this novel now.

  9. I’m only coming to your review now (sorry about that – I am so out of the blogging loop!) but agree that the ending was surreal and unsatisfying. Comyns is quirky but leaves an impression, even if an uncomfortable one.

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