I've recently been swept up in another of my periodic orgies of interlibrary loan requests, somewhat to Andy's and the SF Public Library's chagrin probably. But this time I have been to some extent getting "back to my roots," trying to read some of the previously unread books by my favorite authors. This one, the seventh novel by an author best known for her first five, has been one of my favorites so far, and I can't believe I waited so long to read it.
I had already, long ago, read those first five novels by Barbara Comyns—Sisters by a River (1947), Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1955), The Vet's Daughter (1959), and The Skin Chairs (1962)—which were all reprinted by Virago in the 1980s. Some (though sadly not all) of those remain in print today. I liked them all, particularly Who Was Changed, which is one of my all-time favorites (and which I made my Comyns selection on my Middlebrow Syllabus). Virago also reprinted Mistletoe, judging by the Virago cover I found online, but perhaps in a smaller print run, since, unlike the earlier novels, their edition of this one seems to have become distinctly hard to find.
And indeed Mistletoe might have been a slightly harder sell. Comyns' books in general are hardly "cozy" reading in any traditional sense. Several of those early novels deal with the sometimes joyful, sometimes macabre details of country life as seen from the viewpoints of children. The children's cheerfully deadpan acceptance of both the pleasures and horrors of life lends those novels either a delightfully morbid humor or a very dark sensibility indeed, depending how dark the reader's own sense of humor is. But A Touch of Mistletoe applies the same sort of stark, matter-of-fact narrative voice to the adulthood and early middle age of its heroine and her younger sister, from just after the end of World War I until after World War II. During which time, the two women face, in unequal proportions, the vicissitudes of life, including an alcoholic mother, the struggle for independence, poverty, various more or less degrading jobs, marriage, madness, wealth, childrearing, artistic expression, widowhood, more poverty, abortion, borderline prostitution, and Blitz, among other things.
Not the stuff of cozy novels, for sure. In some ways, it's a bleaker (and apparently more autobiographical) scene than in Comyns' earlier works. And yet, as with the earlier works, Comyns' wonderful voice, calmly—even monotonously at times—intoning both the good and the bad, becomes hypnotic, hilarious, and devastating by turn (or, frequently, all at the same time). And if you're in the right frame of mind, all the tragedy and darkness is somehow as cheerful and life-affirming as a more traditionally cozy tale.
But then, bear in mind that I find Samuel Beckett cheerful and life-affirming as well (and come to think of it, Comyns' books may well deserve to sit on a shelf next to Beckett's)…
At first, the style of Mistletoe seemed a bit dense, but 20-30 pages in it all somehow clicked into place and I was hooked, hopelessly addicted to Comyns' incomparably wonky universe. Mind you, it's still a bit densely packed, but I urge you to persevere, because the density is part of Comyns' brilliance—how she transitions from one subject to another, even more disturbing one, in one seamless paragraph.
Take this longish passage starting on page 2, for example, about how Victoria, Blanche, their stodgy older brother Edward, and their widowed mother came to live with Grandfather:
Grandfather had been a Civil Servant in India and had returned to his family house when he retired on a comfortable pension, and he must have been very contented there surrounded by the things he knew and loved. His wife had been mislaid years earlier. I think she had run away with a young officer and was never mentioned. For years we thought her dead. But Grandfather had his son and when the son became an architect with an office in Cheltenham, he frequently visited his home and after he had married and had us children, we all used to come along too. Then our father was killed during the second year of the 1914-18 war and Mother brought us all to stay with Grandfather. At first this was a temporary arrangement while she looked round, but, as she only had an army pension to look round on, we stayed on and on until Grandfather's house became our permanent home.
The house was large and he seemed quite pleased to have us. It was Mother who hated living there. At first she eased her boredom by organizing a committee to deal with Belgian refugees, and for several years there were fêtes in the garden in aid of some good cause and a great white bundle called the Maternity Bag which provided linen for the village women's lyings in. But gradually she became thirsty and almost retired from village life. Grandfather's dreamy pink face began to wear a bewildered look and he shut himself up in the billiard-room as much as possible. 'I'm afraid my daughter-in-law is poorly' or 'Your mother isn't quite herself today, poorly, you know' were words that frequently crossed his lips, and when we children heard the word 'poorly' applied to anyone who was ill, perhaps an innocent child suffering with measles, we took it for granted that they had been drinking bottles of port or sherry. Our mother rather lost interest in us after the thirst got hold of her and, although our grandfather was vaguely fond of us, he certainly wasn't interested. Edward was sent to a second or perhaps third-rate school recommended by the vicar and Blanche and I had to make do with ever-changing governesses who seemed to know they were doomed as soon as they arrived and hardly bothered to unpack their boxes. The last one was a Miss Baggot, who was old and finding it difficult to get work; although she was frequently in tears, she stayed for nearly a year. Mother finally hit her with a parasol and she left after that.
Quite a lot of ground to cover in a couple of paragraphs (and poor Miss Baggot might deserve a novel of her own)!
If you're a fan of Comyns' earlier work, don't make the mistake I made—jump onto this dark little jewel as soon as you have a chance. Sadly, following an unenthusiastic response to this novel (philistines!), Comyns fell silent for nearly 20 years—until, in fact, Virago began reprinting her work and she was inspired to approach the typewriter again. Her 1985 comeback novel, The Juniper Tree, has recently been reprinted in the U.S. by New York Review Books Classics, but her two subsequent novels, Mr Fox (1987) (reviewed by Simon at Stuck in a Book here) and The House of Dolls (1989), as well as Mistletoe and its precursor, Birds in Tiny Cages (1964) (and indeed, the wonderful earlier novel The Skin Chairs) seem to remain unavailable on both sides of the pond.
I have to confess that I've already put in interlibrary loan requests for Birds and for Comyns' memoir/travel book about her time in Spain, Out of the Red and Into the Blue (1960). And I'm suppressing (for now, with difficulty) the urge to go back and re-read all the earlier novels.
If my raves aren't enough to tempt you, however, here are links to two tempting articles:
First, Camilla Grudova's selection of A Touch of Mistletoe as her "Best Book of 1967" on Granta's website—see here—not only made me feel more confident of my belief that it's one of Comyns's best books, but it also reinforced a rudimentary sense I had in reading it that few writers (and certainly few women writers of this time period) have written about poverty, death, pregnancy, childbirth, illness, and heartbreak as starkly and yet somehow entertainingly as Comyns.