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Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

3.99  ·  Rating details ·  1,247 ratings  ·  231 reviews
This is the story of the Willoweed family and the English village in which they live. It begins mid-flood, ducks swimming in the drawing-room windows, “quacking their approval” as they sail around the room. “What about my rose beds?” demands Grandmother Willoweed. Her son shouts down her ear-trumpet that the garden is submerged, dead animals everywhere, she will be lucky t ...more
Paperback, 193 pages
Published November 10th 2010 by Dorothy, a publishing project (first published 1954)
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Average rating 3.99  · 
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 ·  1,247 ratings  ·  231 reviews

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May 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: british, sociology
There’ll Always Be an England

The saving grace of the English is that they don’t take tragedy all that seriously. Recently this has been shown clearly in the process of leaving the European Union. Everyone agrees it’s been handled badly. But very few are terribly upset. Things will work out. Life will go on. In fact life going on means that there will be any number of replacement problems once this one is resolved. There isn’t likely to be progress but that’s never been a reason for despair.

Dec 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: littry-fiction
this book was a perfect book to read directly after prayer for the dying. when i was reading the o'nan, i kept thinking "this is like an even sadder winesburg, ohio", even though that was a poor comparison. but i still feel that way. this one is closer to what an even more depressing winesburg would be, because it is also funny, which is an element not to be found in the o'nan.

but funny in the way that, as you are laughing, you are horrified.

there are several elements that, bizarrely, occur in

The painting on the cover of the Virago edition of this book is called Dinner on the Hotel Lawn and is one of the panels from Stanley Spencer's Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta series. Spencer's paintings have always appealed to me for their unusual combination of medieval religiosity and modern absurdity (view spoiler)
Justin Tate
Dec 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
A quirky, forgotten classic brought back to print and deservingly so. I'm particularly impressed by Comyns' ability to float among POVs as often as the wind changes without driving me crazy. As they say in the introduction, this novel shouldn't work. Developing an entire town of characters in 200 pages seems like an insurmountably difficult task - and yet here it is.

The plot is infused with tragedy and dark humor and sometimes it's hard to discern which tone she's going for. In any case, there a
Feb 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: virago, comyns
This is set in an English village in the early 1900s, written in 1954. It has the wit and sharpness of Cold Comfort Farm with added corpses. Central to it all is the Willoweed family. A tyrannical grandmother, a son, Ebin who appears to do very little apart from try to avoid his mother and sporadically teach his two younger children, three children Emma, Hattie and Dennis, two maids (Norah and Eunice) and the gardener and handyman Ives who is determined to outlive Mrs Willoweed senior. Hattie is ...more
Feb 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Warwick by: Chloe
Bitter and delicious as dark chocolate, this story is a treat. It is resolutely English, both in its setting – a run-down country estate in Warwickshire – and in its tone of brisk tragic comedy. This is established to great effect in the virtuoso opening scene, which follows the effects of the river flooding:

As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only t
Jenny (Reading Envy)
I recently purchased books from the Dorothy Project, and one of the books was this one. I had never heard of the author or the book. So there it was, on my shelf, and then a character in another book I just finished, Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller, mentions the book in passing. It was a clear sign that I should read this next.

This is a weird and disturbing book (in a good way) - the town seems to take floods, epidemics, and dead animals (and people) in stride. The baker's wife is running arou
May 18, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

The beginning, with the flooding of an ancestral home on the outskirts of a village, a seemingly regular occurrence, reminded me of The Mill on the Floss. A teenaged girl being part of the family reinforced that impression, but quickly I realized this is no Eliot. There’s no overt narratorial presence, and certainly no moralizing.

After the flood, inside the village, madness then death starts spreading. The malady is described by characters as “contagious” and “an epidemic.” I found it weird
Nate D
May 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: ducks in the drawing room
Recommended to Nate D by: pastoral hysteria
First caught my eye via the incredible title, before I realized I'd been meaning to read this for a while. And it's great, the best thing I've read this month, probably. Comyns shares certain peculiarities of tone, observation, and conviction, perhaps, with interwar favorites Jane Bowles and Denton Welch, but seems initially to be taking things into much more phantasmagorical territory. Initially we have the macabre pastoral British landscape, a flood, unexplained public suicides, creeping madne ...more
Feb 22, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2015-women
A perfect little Hallowe'en treat for gruesome children. It reminded me strangely of The Man Who Loved Children; twisted family dynamics are pitched at you and the author moves on, leaving a sickening afterimage to burn into your eyeballs. Dark genius at work in fairy tale land.

Can you say macabre?
E. G.
Jun 01, 2016 rated it really liked it

--Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
Jeff Jackson
Dec 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jeff by: Brian Evenson's introduction
This novel probably sounds more macabre than it reads: It opens with a disastrous flood and takes place in a small English village beset by a mysterious epidemic of suicides. But once you get past the gruesome knife wounds and floating animal corpses, it's a surprisingly wry and often gentle book. The story circles around several children growing up in a beatific countryside and the turns their lives take during these strange events. Comyns strikes a tone that's between all the expected register ...more
May 30, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: dead animals floating everywhere
Recommended to Mariel by: baker acts
As soon as the funeral was over, and before the mourners had hardly left, the uninvited surged into the churchyard to watch the gravedigger fill the grave with clods of clay so recently removed and to examine the dying wreaths. They were accompanied by many dogs.

Grandmother Willoweed commissions a boat to transport her to the funeral of the summer. The rest are a bunch of Johnny come latelys. The doctor's wife finally kicked it after extending her wifely presence beyond the sick room. I'm sure
Jul 07, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
(3.5) An extremely entertaining, weird and funny story about a family that doesn't get along, a tragedy within that same community and what happens in the aftermath of said tragedy. Comyns was a writer with a hugely imaginative mind and this kept me reading without boredom.

Generally, when there is a lot of death and grief I feel a loneliness, a darkness inside. She finds a way to make the act of dying not sad, but a part of the actual entertainment.

Recommended for people who don't take life ser
Nancy Oakes
Apr 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: uk-fiction, 1950s, 2019
4.5 on the five side, because it's a downright brilliant book and I love Barbara Comyns' writing.

much more here (no spoilers at all):

My introduction to the work of Barbara Comyns was her The Vet's Daughter, which I absolutely loved. Like that book, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is disorienting, dark, and filled with small moments of rather wry, black humor that caused instant guilt feelings whenever a laugh escaped. It is also an excellent read, one I
Mar 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Listing this book on my humor and literary-horror shelves makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Yet as a word of warning, the humor is very dark, satirical at times, with the entire book meeting in the middle between humor and horror.

This is one of my flirt-finds. There is a young woman who works in the local used book store and I have been lucky enough on more than one ooccasion to approach the register when she is busy flirting with a customer. She tells me to pay some miniscule amount and to n
Other reviewers have compared Barbara Comyns to Shirley Jackson, and they're right to do so. Both authors have a way of describing awful situations and people with detached, pinpoint precision.

The Willoweed family, living in a small English village in 1911, ruled by the tyrannical and cruel Grandmother Willoweed, are beset first by flood and then by an epidemic. Who is changed, who is dead and who escapes has nothing to do with who is good and who is bad. I guess the theme of this story is that
Diane Barnes
Oct 26, 2020 rated it really liked it
Another strange little book from Barbara Comyns that makes no sense...until it does. Flood, fire, poisonings, mass hysteria in a small village in England in the 1880's. Written so unemotionally that you can't get upset about any of it, but interesting nonetheless. The title says it all, and it strikes me that that could be the subtitle for any book about 2020. Who was changed and who was dead: pandemic, hurricanes, fires, elections, you name it, it describes what's going on right now. ...more
Carla Remy
Jun 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Morbid Adorable.
Reads like a children's book with a horror plot.
I'm not sure what it means. Is it supposed to be symbolic or not?
I first read this when I was 17. I found the Virago copy in a knock off bin in a mall bookstore. Drawn to the title. It was 1993. This novel was formative for me, I loved it. Probably more than I do now.
Jan 01, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: stylee
Barbara Comyns is absolutely one of my new favorite writers. Her work is so strange, so precise, so ever-so-slightly gruesome. Reading Comyns is a kind of submersion; like lifting your feet from the lake bottom and drifting; like closing your eyes against a grey sky as the water rises around you, lifting your hair, filling your ears, slipping overhead until everything around you is blurred and green. A world recognizable--but barely.

Aug 20, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018, virago

Barbara Comyns is one of those writers who has been on my to-read list for so long that an almost mythic status has been assigned to her name in my mind. Based on reviews I've read through the years I was also uncertain as to what exactly to expect from her books. Sometimes these conditions can set the stage for disappointment when I finally get around to reading a writer's work. Thankfully such was not the case with Comyns. This novel encapsulates small-town domestic life rendered in a peculiar
Jun 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Pretty much perfect.
Jan 17, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
On the basis of this, I'd say Comyns seems like the bastard love child of Stella Gibbons and Edward Gorey - the macabre and the droll fighting it out for supremacy. A breezy, entertaining read - my one quibble is that the book was published in 1954 and the beginning states it takes place "About Seventy years ago..." (i.e., 1884) and yet the coronation of George V is mentioned, which took place in 1911! ...more
Emily M
Oct 18, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.5 stars

Within a few weeks funerals were to become a common occurrence in that village; but at this time they were rather scarce and looked forward to eagerly. The mid-day sun burned down on the black group of people. They looked like bloated, sleepy flies at the end of the season. They were imprisoned by tombstones tumbling in all directions, some beautiful and some rotted away.

Another darkly bucolic, hard-to-classify novel from Barbara Comyns. It feels like I Capture the Castle crossed with S
Jan 30, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
4.5 rounded up

Loved this. Excited to read more Comyns soon!

Helen McClory
Mar 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
A lemony slap of a book. See my review here: ...more
Oct 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A strange and shockingly unique little gem of a novel. Comyns is an author one must be in the mood for, but there’s no denying her talent.
Jan 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2012
This book belongs on the shelf next to "Let's Murder Uncle," "I Capture the Castle," and of course, that famous gem of odd goings on in the British countryside, "Cold Comfort Farm."

However, be aware that Comyns tragicomic little gem is dipped in a blacker hue than any of the previously mentioned books. Originally banned in Ireland for it's singularly bleak vision, "Who was Changed..." begins with a flood, goes on to a mysterious string of violent deaths brought on by good intentions (possibly t
Jun 26, 2011 rated it really liked it
A dreamy-grotesque summertime tale set in a village of England’s West Midlands in the 1880s. The village is afflicted first with a flood and then a terrible epidemic, and through it all the characters--the strange Willoweed family, in particular--float like obsessed apparitions or dangerous sprites, distending the fabric of their community with the momentum of obscure, private agendas.

Comyns’ limpid, fluid narrative voice is a true marvel, covering a tremendous amount of ground--and very quickly
May 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lapl
I love weird English tales about rural village life. Maybe because it's what I've descended from or maybe because it doesn't exist the way it used to and I have some kind of weird nostalgia for a kind of simplicity that shuns modern conveniences associated with efficiency and cleanliness...

It's funny that this was a banned book. Was it the cat with it's eyeball popped out of the socket or the butcher who sliced his own neck in the shape of a smile or the charred man who crawled from his burning
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Barbara Comyns was educated mainly by governesses until she went to art schools in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Her father was a semi-retired managing director of a Midland chemical firm. She was one of six children and they lived in a house on the banks of the Avon in Warwickshire. She started writing fiction at the age of ten and her first novel, Sisters by a River, was published in 1947. She ...more

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