Barbara Comyns’ Who has Changed and Who has Died (1954) – Misery and Malice in a Small Village – The Willoweed family life is defined by misery made worse under the scrupulous eye of an embittered matriarch, Grandma Willoweed.
The cranky and controlling woman holds power over the family through an inheritance that they are dependent upon. Her son, Ebin, takes her abuse in order to keep a home while unemployed but often passes off his own insecurities onto his three children, Emma, Hattie, and Phillip, through insults and abusive behavior.
Consequently, when tragedy befalls the small town in the way of madness induced through sickness, the Willoweed’s become drawn to the situations for their own morbid and selfish reasons–both as a means to celebrate others’ downfalls and to escape their own misery.
Billed as a ‘tragicomedy’, “Who has Changed and Who has Died” is a deceptively bleak novel that hides under a thin veneer of dark humor.
In fact, those unfamiliar with prose or media that relies heavily on uncomfortable and amoral characters to push comedic elements will likely find the work entirely off-putting.
At the same time, the playfully crass nature of the work does not lie in shock value as death is never graphically conveyed, and instances of abuse spare morbid details. Instead, repulsion from the audience will come in the form of a moral repulsion from her character’s inner dialogue that is largely harsh, uncaring, and vindictive.
A prime example of amorality on display is Ebin’s observation of the passing of a woman in town instantly invoking a sense of disgust at how her sex appeal has declined in the throes of death over empathy for her suffering. This is just one of many observations that will make the readers feel repulsed by the family unit, particularly Ebin and Grandmother Willoweed.
Comparatively, the children of the family do maintain their innocence to a degree but even their broken-down spirit under the cruel matriarch transforms them into meek and awkward personalities to the point that their sorrows become rather mundane.
The work can be compared to a lot of ‘dark comedic’ literature from Europe that loves to focus on tragic characters, yet the book lacks any social commentary that gives it that edge that allows the work to at least be reflective of some societal woe.
The family lives and dwells in misery and carries few redeemable qualities, a fact that only compounds as the town delve into madness and people start dying.
Undeniably, Barbara Comyns is a deeply talented writer of demented prose, and the world she creates is really easy to get absorbed in despite the morbid, bleak nature of it all.
Where the book does carry redemptive qualities through the author’s ability to create characters that are deeply fascinating to explore, flaws and all.
Ebin Willoweed, who is perhaps the worst of the bunch, born of privilege has become petty, embittered, jealous, and often takes it out on his kids through weird mental games. Notably, his abuse of Phillip in beatings and abandoning him in odd places in a way to push him to be more masculine is an obvious pathetic compensation for his own emasculation at the hands of his mother. Despite Ebin being so despicable, Comyns still manages to make him an intriguing car wreck by meticulously defining his fallacies through both his own perspective and that of others in the family.
Make no mistake, as miserable as the book can be it is still a captivating read and worthy of exploration if you are one of those readers that find themselves mysteriously drawn to tragic and deplorable characters.
Furthermore, the light flairs of comedic prose through peculiar observations on how the family appears both to others and how they interpret the world is conveyed with a sharp intellectual wit.
There is an audience for this book, but it is one that you need to be willing to seek and be comfortable with.
Personally, “Who has Changed and Who has Died” did appeal to my own sense of dark humor and there were points in the book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
At the same time, the pain of those in the book seemed rather… meaningless.
Ultimately, this is what really pushed me away from the overall experience, at the same time I am really excited to check out more from Comyns because of the aspects that worked I adored, and am hopeful her other work will capture more of that magic out from underneath the morbid lense.
The Forgotten Fiction Grade: Nay (or read it anyway, if you dare)
“Who has Changed and Who has Died” is available through The Dorothy Project.
“Barbara Comyns’ Who has Changed and Who has Died (1954)” was written by Adam Symchuk.