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Sisters by a River

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On the banks of the River Avon, five sisters are born. The seasons come and go, the girls take their lessons under the ash tree, and always there is the sound of water swirling through the weir. Then, unexpectedly, an air of decay descends upon the house: ivy grows unchecked over the windows, angry shouts split the summer air, the milk sours in the larder and their father takes out his gun. Tragedy strikes the family, and before long the furniture is being auctioned off and the sisters dispersed among relatives. In her daring first novel, originally published in 1947, Barbara Comyns' unique young heroine relates the vivid, funny and bittersweet story of a childhood.

194 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1947

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About the author

Barbara Comyns

12 books216 followers
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 also worked in an advertising agency, a typewriting bureau, dealt in old cars and antique furniture, bred poodles, converted and let flats, and exhibited pictures in The London Group. She first married in 1931, to an artist, and for the second time in 1945. With her second husband she lived in Spain for eighteen years.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 112 reviews
Profile Image for JimZ.
1,019 reviews457 followers
January 15, 2021
Simply amazing.

I was writing stuff down as I was reading this semi-autobiographical novel, and saying to myself “Wait until I tell my friends on GRs what she says on page such-and-such” and then the next page had another memorable write-it-down-for-posterity-sake… after about 50 pages I just gave up. If I wrote down everything that was memorable about this book, this review would simply be me writing word-for-word the whole damn book. 😊 🙃

Unbelievable. She shouldn’t be allowed to say that! Oh, she just did. Again. Again. Again. How did this ever get published? In 1947 no less?

Well, it almost didn’t get published. I guess she had no intentions of publishing it. She wrote part of the semi-autobiography down circa 1940 and put it in a suitcase. (see 2nd note below)

Just a passage from one of the early chapters:
• When I was about four I can remember a rather dreadful thing happening, it was very early in the morning and for some reason I had been put to sleep in the same bed as Granny, but I woke up and found she wasn’t in bed but walking up and down the room with her jaw sticking out muttering to herself, “I wont have it, I wont have it” I sat up in bed and said “What won’t you have a jam tart” in my imagination I could see a crisscross raspberry one, but she said “Don’t be so impertinent” so I didn’t like to say anything else, but she kept marching up and down in her long white nighty and it got rather boring. I was almost asleep again, where there was a frightful din about the room, Daddy, Mammy and Granny were all shouting and moping and mowing, then Mammy and Daddy started to push the poor thing out of the window, Mammy got a fright and started to scream, but it was dreadful to see Daddy pushing and heaving away and Granny getting more and more out of the window, there were awful gaspings and groanings going on from Granny and her flapping white nighty was all up at the back which seemed to make it worse somehow, Mammy looked quite sad, I guess she felt sorry for her when she was half in and half out like that, the she got stuck, it really was a mercy her hips were so wide and the window rather narrow, no one was noticing me so I got out of bed and ran and hid in the apple room, but it was the wrong time of year for apples so very dreary there. Granny did not appear till lunch time, and everything seemed the same as usual then, her eyes were rather red maybe and she didn’t talk quite as much as usual but she eat masses of chicken and it was only boiled, when Daddy said “Have a little more Nance” she handed up her plate quite happily.

You can hopefully see I was saying to myself “She can’t say that!”, eh?

This was her first novel. Certainly not her last. I have read ‘The Vet’s Daughter’ (1959) and ‘Their Spoons Came From Woolworths’ (1950). I’m sold on this author. 😊

Here are three blurbs regarding this book.
• Sisters by a River – initially written to entertain her own children – is a semi-fictional account of Comyns’s childhood growing up in a large house on the banks of the River Avon in Warwickshire. Originally serialized in Lilliput magazine under the intriguing title ‘The Novel Nobody Will Publish’, it offers a potent glimpse of the ramshackle world in which Comyns – one of six children – was raised. The siblings in Sisters live in an ancient house that smells of ‘wallnuts [sic] and church’ with their parents, a violent father and a deaf, disinterested mother at continual war with each other. The children’s wild, near feral existence is strangely macabre. They ‘squashed the rabbits’ attempting to ride them, rats fall down the chimney into the porridge pot bubbling away on the stove, and bloated pig carcasses and even on one occasion a ‘very dead boy’ are found bobbing in the river.(Lucy Scholes, excellent essay about Comyns and her oeuvre: https://unbound.com/boundless/2019/03...
• While Comyns was writing Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, a friend found the manuscript she had written in Hertfordshire and encouraged her to publish it.[9] Five of the stories were published in Lilliput between May 1945 and August 1946 as extracts from "the novel nobody will publish", with the manuscript later published in whole as Sisters by a River in 1947 by Eyre & Spottiswoode while Graham Greene was director there under Douglas Jerrold.[10][11] Both Lilliput and Eyre & Spottiswoode left her non-standard spelling intact.
• In 1959 the publisher William Heinemann sent a copy of Barbara Comyn’s The Vet’s Daughter to Graham Greene, hoping for a quote. Greene’s response was swift and perfunctory: “Will you please send me no more books by lady novelists. I’m sick of them. No more.” The following day he set a telegram: “This writer is marvelous.” (from British Writers Supplement VIII: Barbara Comyns (1907-1992) by Julie Hearne, p. 53).

Profile Image for Dolors.
527 reviews2,210 followers
May 2, 2019

It wasn’t until the last chapter that I finally saw the name of the narrator written on the page. I knew it was Barbara even before I started the book, as this is the biography of the author’s childhood and her first published work, unknown to me until it was brought to my attention by Fionnuala’s review.

Barbara. Right.
Still, it kind of unsettled me to see her name spelled out, made it real, tangible.
Because until that moment, the short, rather whimsical episodes told in the voice of a perversely innocent girl of uncertain, or should I say, varying age gave me the impression that she was a fictional character misspelling purposely two out of three words and fabricating the story of her childhood.
How could it be otherwise?
Six sisters ignored by their deaf mother, brutalized by their drunk father, sick with all kind of ailments and victims of misscare, torturers of animals and maids. Six sisters who redefine the meaning of sorority while portraying the ups and downs of growing up in a modest family in Warwickshire at the beginning of the twentieth century.
As I kept turning pages, I couldn’t stop repeating to myself that surely most of the events reported in the narrator’s quirky snapshots of daily life had to be invented, both for their unusual nature and the rather casual, almost indifferent tone used to depict the dim circumstances these girls had to endure until their father’s sudden death. Surely anyone with a tiny heart should have conveyed the anguish of facing such events?

And so, mood and facts were discordingly at odds, and my reading of this short book rather tortuous and grudgingly slow, until I read the narrator’s name. Barbara.Then it all fell into place and made sense. I could finally belive that whimsy, sometimes even annoying voice. She was making it clear from the beginning but I wasn’t paying attention: the need to gain distance from one’s traumas in order to move forward. The way we trick memory to remember only half truths to avoid pain, fear or angst. How sparkly humorous remarks can cover dramatic events too distressing to be faithfully evoked. It was all there, crystal clear.
Dickens’ spirit disguissed with Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic voice.
I finally got to know who this Barbara was.
An unusual writer and one hell of a brave woman.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,178 reviews1,936 followers
December 13, 2018
4.5 stars
This is the third novel I have read by Comyns and this one is autobiographical; covering her early years. It describes life in her family home, a run down and crumbling manor house, on the banks of the Avon in Warwickshire, with her parents and five siblings. I read a little about Comyns’ life and the description of how she made ends meet before she began writing endeared her to me;
“Comyns generated money by breeding poodles, renovating pianos, dealing in antiques and classic cars and drawing for commercial advertisements”.
A word of caution; the spelling (and sometimes diction and grammar) are that of a child. This can be an irritant but the book is still readable and understandable and some of the mistakes are amusing. As it was written much later and has passed through an editor’s hands it is certainly deliberate. The eccentric spelling does ameliorate at times the horrors Comyns is describing and one reviewer has speculated that the writings are indicative of the wounds inflicted on the child. Sometimes the errors illustrate a hidden level of meaning and so are worth noting. The family is dysfunctional (as are most families I suspect) and sometimes one wonders how they all survived childhood (these days social services would have removed them). Both parents were cruel in different ways; her father was almost certainly an alcoholic and periodically violent, especially (but not exclusively) towards her mother.
'Occaisonally he unsuccessfully tried shooting Mammy and as she was quite deaf she didn't even notice.'
One sister as a baby was thrown down the stairs by father because she wouldn’t stop crying (she survived with little damage).
There are also regular descriptions of beloved family pets getting the wrong side of father’s shotgun. Comyns’ mother tended to wish the children didn’t exist and consequently ignored them a good deal of the time. Childhood was in a rural idyll and the children were able to run wild with few constraints. This combined with the fact they were quite isolated made them eccentric and in their mother’s words “grubby”. The children were also quite cruel to animals and the descriptions of their attempts to ride their pet rabbits are rather gruesome.
The book is often bleak, but is told with the matter of factness and optimism of a child and at times is very funny (often in ways it shouldn’t be). There is a gothic edge to it and the tale is told by a perceptive and able chronicler. It is also rather surreal, but well worth looking out for.
Profile Image for Fionnuala.
778 reviews
January 16, 2021
'You speak like a child', a character accuses the narrator in The Juniper Tree, which I'm currently reading, although the narrator is an adult and mother to a three-year old.

The Juniper Tree is one of Barbara Comyns' last books, written when she was in her late seventies. Sisters by a River, on the other hand, is her first book and dates from more than forty years earlier. The narrator of Sisters also speaks like a child — although she lets slip at one point that she is married and has young children which makes her of a similar age to the narrator of The Juniper Tree. But apart from that single reference to her future, she situates the short pieces that make up this book firmly in her childhood, which of course justifies the childish voice and the variable spelling, though both stylistic traits are occasionally irritating. However the reader can't really complain about those aspects because, according to the introduction, Barbara Comyns hadn't originally intended these semi-autobiographical pieces for publication. They were written simply as a private recollection: as solace for herself in difficult times and as a memoir for her children.

Barbara Comyns is very good at capturing a child's voice. That's what makes The Skin Chairs so charming, and the child's point of view in Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is part of the magic of that wonderful book. It's no surprise then that this collection of private recollections is very readable, and it was especially readable for me because it provides a key to Comyns' fiction. Here are the prototypes of many of her characters and themes. Grandmother Willoweed from Who was Changed..., for example, can't but be inspired by Comyns' grandmother who lived with the family until her death: Her bedroom was in the most awful mess with all her toilet preperations and the homemade medicines she brewed there, embrocations for horses legs ‘Oilevambor’ to rub on our chests in the winter and goose oil too, and bottles of homemade wine all gone sour, the carpet was all stuck up with stuff she had spilt, if you walked over it with your bare feet, your feet would hardly come away from the stickiness.

The family lived in a large and rambling house on the banks of the river Avon which was prone to flooding. The descriptions of the place recall the Willoweed house and gardens almost exactly. But unlike in the Willoweed story, there is a mother in this one, though she is quite remote from her children.
When I was very young I could hardly ever tell which was the dining-room and which the morning-room if I was looking at them from the garden, I had the same trouble distinguishing between gold and silver and strangly, Mammie and Granny, I cant think how that came about, they were very different in appearance, Beatrix used to say, ‘You are stupid, Granny is the one who wears specticals when she reads’ but it wasn’t much help when she wasn’t reading.

There were six children, six girls (Daddy got dreadfully annoyed about all these babies coming all the time, he said it was a conspiracy to ruin him), and we hear about them all in great detail — except for the second oldest: Next to Mary in our family was a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they would hate to appear in it. That's the only reference that's ever made to this 'mystery' child, which shows remarkable ingenuity, I feel. How to write about the multitude of events which follow without once referring to someone who must have been a part of it all leaves me baffled.

The children were cared for by a series of nursemaids and governesses whose rules they enjoyed disobeying, which, along with the eccentricities of the adults in the household, explains why the women never stayed very long. One notable governess was Miss Vann: When I was about five years old Granny said we were a disgrace, we needed licking into shape, so insted of the dead vicar’s daughters who used to arrive on bycicles to teach us, they advertised in The Times for a strong disiplarian and the result was Miss Vann. She had always been in the best famlies before she came to us but she was rather on her last legs by the time we got her, that is if she had any legs, all the same she was still a strong disiplarian. I came in for the worst of it, perhaps because she always said I was spoilt...During Miss Vann’s reign I got a smacked bottom nearly every night in advance before she went down stairs for her dinner, that was in case I talked to Beatrix instead of going to sleep, it was a consolation to know I could talk as much as I liked without further punishment..

The collection of pieces read like extended nursery rhymes full of cows jumping over obstacles, old people falling down stairs, children riding on rabbits or sitting in trees pretending to be owls, people with names like Bother-em-Dick and Old Soldier, drowned hens, wicked foxes, boxes full of bones, and ghosts.

The narrative covers the author's childhood from earliest memories until the time of her father's death when she was sixteen, after which the large rambling house by the river had to be sold.
It was as dark as a crows wing in the dining-room now, my sisters black henlike figures still perched on the table, I left them and walked down to the river.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books781 followers
August 15, 2020
Reading this before I read other Comyns novels might’ve been best, but we read what we read when we read it, and so I look backward, instead of forward. Now I know where the river and the decaying manor house and the villagers and the flood and the violent father and the terrible grandmother of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead come from. Now I know where the theme of The Vet's Daughter originated: It's there in a two-page ‘chapter’ called “Gather your hats while you may.”

Believe it or not, I also found Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men in these pages, when the narrator and the youngest sister Chloe burn and rip apart the latter’s books, dolls, toys, socks, and nightgowns—willful destruction, since their parents were neglectful of providing the sisters with necessities like clothes.

Most intriguing for me is the second sister* who is nowhere in these pages, except for this mention on page 9: “Next to Mary in our family was a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they would hate to appear in it, after this mystery child… I would think Mary, the eldest, would’ve hated to have appeared in this book, but she's proud of her dominance, dictating what her younger sisters can do, read, and wear. On page 81 when Mary spoke the word Barbara, my first thought was that Comyns had slipped and here was the “mystery child,” but of course the next second I realized Barbara is Comyns, our narrator-writer. The “mystery child” kept me company for the rest of the book. I wrote her* into the story at every opportunity. When the narrator (the fourth child) and Beatrix (the third child) share a room, I put the “mystery child” in a bedroom with Mary. When Mary and Beatrix are away at school, I put the unnamed sister* there as well. The narrator never forgets there are a total of six sisters*, but is faithful in never mentioning the “mystery child” again.

*Update (8/15/20): I was assuming the "mystery child" was a girl, but reading the foreword to The Vet's Daughter, I see the girls had a brother. Now I have to rethink all my assumptions and rewrite the story of the "mystery child"!
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book487 followers
December 19, 2019
This is a strange little book. I kept thinking of this as Little Women turned on its head. This is the story of five sisters told by the one in the middle. The river in reference here is the Avon, and the family is an upper class family that is apparently barely hanging on to its status and properties. It is told in an episodic fashion, non-linear, vignette-style. While the forward said it was semi-autobiographical, I kept hoping some of these events never occurred, particularly those in which animals and children were subjected to cruelty. Instances of both occurred a bit too often for my taste, but I tried to read it with a sense of humor, because otherwise it was a wee bit dark. I mean, any way you stack it, these are at worst abusive parents and at best apathetic ones.

then she (Granny) would say we were no better than Street Arabs or Charity Winks and should be horsewhipped, once Daddy took her at her word and did horsewhip me, it was so dreadful I couldn’t even cry out, then Granny got frit (frightened) and kept shouting, “No more, you will kill the child, stop, stop...”

The same father who beats Barbara for accidentally breaking an egg on a wall, throws a baby down the stairs because she will not stop crying and only the quick catch of a nursery nanny prevents a tragedy. His gardener disposes of unwanted kittens by cutting off their heads, which is over the top for me.

These kinds of passages made this a bit hard, but there were also funny episodes since the children were mischievous and less than angels and some of their hijinks were humorous. There is no Marmie handing out sage advice, no Meg loaning gloves so that her sister will be presentable, and certainly no Beth spreading sweetness and light in this novel. The oldest girl, Mary, refuses to allow the other girls to wear any colored dresses, they are forced to wear drab brown, so that she alone will shine and strictly forbids them to read any book that she loves, so Wind in the Willows is off limits. I will admit, however, that the girls’ relationships with one another seemed quite realistic and genuine to me. I grew up in a family of girls, and there are surely those moments between the older and younger that are neither kind nor fair.

In the end, I am leaving it with mixed feelings. I actually liked parts of it very much and, despite the passages that I objected to, I never considered putting it aside. So, I’m plotting it right in the middle...didn’t hate it, didn’t love it.

Profile Image for Rod.
102 reviews58 followers
August 16, 2015

I'm not sure whether this should be classified as a novel, a memoir, a collection of essays, or a combination of all the above. Most likely the latter. Centering around the author's childhood on the banks of the River Avon in the early part of the 20th Century among a large, affluent yet debt-ridden family, the book is a series of short essay-like sketches that are alternately horrifying and humorous, tender and brutal. We are introduced to Barbara and her four sisters, two younger, two older. There is a sixth child, but we are told that this one would be horrified at the prospect of being included in the proceedings, so this sixth child goes unnamed and unmentioned throughout the book, except for the occasional reminder that there are indeed six children, not five. This, I suppose, is the memoir equivalent of the "subject declined to be interviewed" line in documentary films. I found it amusing.

The parents are, as you would imagine, immensely flawed people; sometimes they are portrayed and loving and gentle, and sometimes monstrous, particularly in the case of the father. The following passage horrified me, yet is leavened by humor at the very end (Comyns' stock-in-trade):

Daddy was very fierse with us, we would suddenly hear an angry trumpeting noise and he would grab as many of us as he could and bang our heads together, I got the most beatings, Kathleen and Chloe hardly any because he had grown rather tame by the time they were old enough to be naughty.

Once when Beatrix was a baby he got so furious because of her crying he threw her down the stairs, fortunatly a cook called Harriat caught her at the bottom and saved her life, after that Harriat kept her in her bedroom at night so that he couldn’t hear her crying which was a good thing in case there hadn’t been anyone to catch her the next time, but Harriat had to leave soon after because her feet smelt.

As you can see, it is written in a naïve style that is riddled with misspellings and run-on sentences. The introduction mentions that the publisher intentionally left spelling and punctuation unedited (she was a poor speller due to growing up with a deaf mother), and even added some mistakes in the interest of authenticity, so I'm not sure how much of this is Comyns' natural writing style or a conscious attempt at naïveté. Regardless, it works very well, capturing a child's matter-of-fact viewpoint of a sometimes dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish existence.

Beatrix and I found a large branch with a lot of twigs trailing from it, we both got astride it and pretended it was a horse, then we found ourselves slowly raising from the ground, soon we were flying through the sky, we were not at all afraid, it seemed quite an ordinary thing to happen, there was our house quite tiny down below, with the silver river twisting beside it, up we went till we could only see clowds below, then we came to a little red house, it was very clean, a fairy lived there and she was pleaded to see us, her eyes were made of looking glass but she was a bit little[. . .]there were bright wool mats and lovely wax fruit in glass cases, a tinker bell in the window and varses like chandeers. We liked it there and often travelled on the magic stick always to the little red house, then Mary got cross about it and broke the magic stick, we tried sitting on the stokehole wall and shutting our eyes and willing ourselves to go up but we never could again. We were five or six at the time.

There we have dreamlike. It is presented matter-of-factly, but certainly that couldn't have actually happened. Yet in the viewpoint of an imaginative five- or six-year-old, it certainly did happen, and would have left an indelible memory. And shouldn't an indelible memory of childhood have a place in a childhood memoir? Or maybe it's just made up, I really have no idea. It's kind of beside the point. The point is that Comyns evokes a certain time and place and point of view with an alacrity that most authors would envy, and this was her first book.

Its nonlinear, plotless, seemingly unstructured nature makes it a slightly less compelling read than Comyns' masterful Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but I was nonetheless captivated by this little book. Those who have read and liked WWCaWWD will definitely notice the thruline from this book to that one and will find it equally captivating.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
917 reviews949 followers
December 25, 2019
Comyns deserves to be placed with the literary greats of the century. No doubt of it in my mind.
Something of the outsider artist to her, but also almost surrealism at times, as well as both more traditional modernism and old-fashioned realism. Certainly an odd, unique bird and one that was always very much herself.

Spellings in what follows all as in the text...


Daddy had a number of guns, he kept them in the billardroom, there was a revolver too, he was always threatning to shoot himself, his creditors or both with it, the big guns, some of them had double barrels to make it easy for bad shots and cross eyed men, they were intended for shooting game, although quite often they were used on cats and people, towards the end of his life he got obsessed with the idea of shooting my red setter. With horror I would see the barrel of a gun appearing from a holly bush, I would call her away with shaking voice, he would fire after us as we ran away, but fortunatly his aim had got rather bad by this time. Occaisonally he unsuccessfully tried shooting Mammy and as she was quite deaf she didn't even notice. Once he had a few shots at a cousin and the man she was engaged to because they stayed rather late on the river, they were frightfully upset and left the house early the next morning and we never saw them again, it was of no conciquence, because we didn't like them anyway but Mary who was in the boat as well said it was rather an alarming experience, her heart sank when she saw Daddy prancing on the river bank in his nightshirt waving a gun above his head, as soon as he saw them in the moonlight he started firing like mad, perhaps he was mad, it took Palmer days
to fill the holes in the side of the boat.

Before all this he was a good shot, and our larder was kept well stocked with game at the appropate seasons, he shared rather a rough shoot with the two doctors and the vicar, Palmer who never got left out of anything went as loader, it was also his job to make and light a bonfire, they would cook
ham on sticks over it and bake potoaes in the ash. When Mammy got shoot minded we would drive over in a pony and trap with Miss Glide and a huge hamper of lunch, it was rather fun till I heard a hare scream when it was shot.
Profile Image for Emily.
Author 17 books606 followers
September 6, 2010
Have you read this insane and wonderful book? My friend Normandy gave it to me last night and I had to prevent myself from staying up til 4 in the morning to finish it. It's about being the neglected and strange child of a pre-WW2 vaguely aristocratic British family. I guess imagine Nancy Mitford with the quirkiness and sadism and childish hyperfocus lens turned up about 500%. I would especially recommend this book to my friend Sadie Stein for some reason. Sample sentence: "Mummy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentences half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add "and so forth" which was a favorite expression. Sometimes when she was showing visitors round the garden she would suddenly come upon us playing some wierd game, she would look quite startled as if she had never seen us before and say something like this 'The childen, grubby, playing don't you know, such a number of them, I married very young, quite a nice governess' and hurry her guests away, which was just as well because we had rather abomonoable manners ..." The publisher preserved the author's idiosyncratic spelling which I can't quite decide how I feel about.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,254 reviews451 followers
March 20, 2018
3.5 rounded up to 4

This is a hard book to review because I can't decide if it describes an idyllic childhood or a gothic horror story. Memoir disguised as fiction, Barbara and her 5 sisters were allowed complete freedom in a large estate in the country, right beside the River Avon. On the other hand, their father was a violent drinker and their mother had no use for her children and resented them. Barbara was the middle child, and, like all her sisters, a little odd. Add in a crazy grandmother, revolving door of maids and cooks, a strange gardener who doubled as a butler, and you don't know whether to laugh or cry. So I just did both, because this is the second of Comyns' books that I've read and enjoyed, and her style is just like her life: a little odd, offbeat, but with such wonderful candor that even the worst situations are taken in stride.

Only recommended to readers who like something a little different.
Profile Image for Larou.
330 reviews50 followers
March 2, 2015
Barbary Comyns is a very unusual writer, both regarding her life and her writings. She married early and unhappily, worked in a variety of jobs, some of them rather… unusual, not to say bizarre (breeding poodles!) and kind of slipped into a writing career when she was persuaded to try to publish the stories about her early life she had been writing down for her children. She had a hard time finding a publisher for that novel, but finally succeeded and it was released as Sisters by a River in 1947.

As far as her writings are concerned, the only author I can think of who is somewhat comparable would be Robert Walser – they both share the unflinchingly affirmative attitude of their protagonists, who not only endure, but embrace and welcome all the misery that life throws their way. The writing of both appears odd, even quaint at first (and might remain that way to a superficial reading) but on closer inspection reveals that it has a darker undertone and a very sharp edge to it. The constant enthusiastic affirmation of even the most cruel and mean-spirited behaviour produces a subversion which denounces such behaviour and the society that produces it much more effectively than any open criticism could, and makes for a very uncomfortable, even unsettling reading experience – which, I think, is to a large part responsible for neither Walser nor Comyns getting quite the appreciation they deserve; if they are read at all, both tend to be classified as “quirky humour”, and this is a label that does not do justice to either.

However, there are at least as many differences between the two writers as there are similarities; in fact the actual reading experience of their respective works is very different indeed. What struck me most, at least with Sisters by a River, – the only novel of Barbara Comyns that I have read so far, but unlikely to remain the only one – was that while the world Walser’s protagonists live in is both mind-numbing and soul-smothering, Comyns’ protagonists find themselves just as often victims to or at least threatened by physical violence. That might be due to Comyns living in Britain rather than Switzerland, or to her writing several decades later – but for my part, I’m inclined to ascribe it to the gender of her protagonists, who appear to be all female.

As accepting, affirmative and even occasionally merry as the first-person narrator of Sisters by a River is, her life is filled with violence, a lot of it directed at herself either from her parents or her eldest sister. Taking a step back, detaching oneself from the narrative and taking considered look at everything she tells us about, this is a fairly bleak book – while the sisters of the title did live in an upper class home for most of their childhood, they were exposed to the constant fierce quarrelling between her parents and oppressed by the eldest sister who erected something like a rule of terror over her siblings, down to the colour of clothes they were allowed to wear (only brown and other drab colours, so that they would not outshine the eldest). That might sit strangely with the quirky and essentially harmless humour that is often ascribed to Comyns, but in fact it is precisely a mark of her greatness as a writer that she spins such a breezy and occasionally bubbly tale out of her misery (her own misery, too, given that Sisters by a River is presumably to a large degree autobiographical) – not, however, to gloss over them, but quite to the contrary: once the reader notices the dissociation between tone and subject matter, the bleakness of the latter is driven home as a shock, and once noticed, it cannot be un-perceived, but stays with the reader until the end of the novel and what appeared at first as quirkiness takes on an increasingly sad tone as the novel progresses.

And Barbara Comyns does make the reader notice – chiefly by way of the language which is very distinct (and marks another major difference to Robert Walser, whose prose is more conventionally beautiful) thanks to her idiosyncratic orthography. This is often taken as the narrative being written from the perspective of a child, but I for my part do not that this is a viable explanation – it is quite clear from several remarks the narrator lets drop that she is telling of events at a time well afterwards, which would put her at an age where one would expect people to get their spelling right. I think the spelling mistakes and linguistic distortions in the narrator’s writing show the wounds that the events she is writing about have dealt her, that her life has left her scarred even down to the way she is using language. It comes as no great surprise, then, that while some of the novel’s orthographic idiosyncrasies appear to be simple spelling mistakes, instances abound where an apparent error brings some hidden strata of meaning to light, placing Barbara Comyns’ writing in proximity to authors like James Joyce or Arno Schmidt, staunch modernists all.

I do not think I ever read a novel that was so extreme – moving from amusingly quirky to depressingly bleak, its language simultaneously child-like and avant-garde, the reading experience both delightful and harrowing – and yet was so very unobtrusive about it. Sisters by the River is truly a hidden gem, placed in a dark corner where it attempts to avoid drawing attention on itself, but once discovered and exposed to the light, it shines all the brighter. And I can’t help it, but I find it very exhilarating that even after reading several thousands of books one can still make discoveries like this one.
Profile Image for Beth Bonini.
1,291 reviews279 followers
May 31, 2014
I am a sucker for stories about large dysfunctional families, particularly if they are of the English eccentric type. This strange tale -- fiction posing as memoir (and supposedly written by the author for her children with no eye to publication) -- has many Mitford-ish elements: lots of sisters, a father who roars, lots of animals and an idyllic Cotswold setting. There is also that same sense of smug Victorian prosperity (the large family, the servants and governesses, the elaborate picnics and tennis parties) growing increasingly strained and shabby. This family is about to be hit by all of the changes of the 20th century, not to mention their own financial improvidence, and everything will be swept away. As with all of Comyns' writing, there is a strong, distinctive voice that will be either beguiling or off-putting to the reader. I love it. She has a vivid, original way of expressing herself that totally charms me -- even when the subject matter is pretty darn gothic. This novel seems to be entirely unedited, and is full of eccentric spellings and run-on sentences. Usually, this would drive the English teacher in me CRAZY; but after I got used to it, it just seemed like another element of the author's colourful personality. Not really a novel, but it certainly tells a story.
Profile Image for Kirsty.
2,689 reviews177 followers
October 21, 2016
I decided to reread this in October, as I did not remember a great deal of it. I read it at around the same time as Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and The Vet's Daughter, and it has evidently paled in comparison somewhat. A striking child's voice is used here from the position of retrospect, and the structure takes a jumble of both separate and interconnected memories as its focal point. As is often the case with unreliable narrators in fiction, some of the peripheral characters came to life more than others. It is a mysterious and well executed tome, and the very fact that it presents an entirely different life to my own makes it all the more compelling.
Profile Image for Ape.
1,694 reviews36 followers
October 26, 2014
I am still loving the Barbara Comyns experience, second book in. Apparently this is an autobiographical tale; but whether you read it as that or just plain fiction, it is marvellous either way. If you do consider it as Comyns' upbringing, you can certainly spot elements of The Vet's Daughter - the isolated, lonesome teenager, love of animals, disastrous marriage of the parents, the deaf, domestic abuse, even a reference to going to London and expecting it all to be marbled streets, and then being shocked when they saw the slums.

Very early on in the 1900s, Barbara and her six siblings were growing up in what sounds like a well to do country mansion riddled with debt. Although there were six children, only five, all sisters feature in this book. The sixth, but actually second in line, remains nameless and sexless, as she writes in the book "Next to Mary in our family was a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they would hate to appear in it,..." Curious - who and why? Daddy beats Mammie, Granny's mean to everyone, the eldest, Mary, bullies all of the other girls, the maids are lazy taking after Mammie's once a year spring clean attitude to housework, the house is damp and cold, the river outside floods and the family seems to be incapable of making friends. It doesn't really sound like material for an idyllic childhood and yet there is a lot of joy in this book, the sisters having their adventures and bringing themselves up. As for all the misery - it's told how it is, but she never sounds as though she is looking for sympathy or trying to excuse anything or anyone. The story is told in this wonderful childlike way (inventive spelling aside, almost as great as mine!), dotting about and throwing in random facts and anecdotes, like we're breathlessly running around the garden and Barbara's telling us about all her favourite places in no particular order. I guess she is a lady who led a colourful life. Looking forward to reading more.
Profile Image for Peter.
279 reviews22 followers
January 9, 2018
It could be a memoir of childhood, or it might be a fiction...but either way Sisters by a River is a an eccentric, evocative, and continually surprising account of dysfunctional family life by the River Avon in the early years of the last century.

Waywardly spelt (Barbara Comyns received little formal schooling), the book introduces us to a middle-class but chaotic household of six sisters (one, who would not have wished to be in the book, is never otherwise mentioned), a distracted mother who disliked children and became deaf, and a frequently depressed, often violent father who with age developed a rather worrying love of guns. “He was always threatning to shoot himself...but fortnatly his aim had got rather bad by this time. Occaisonally he unsuccessfully tried shooting Mammy and as she was quite deaf she didn’t even notice.

Everything is treated quite matter-of-factly in an unpredictable series of vignettes – from problems with the maids’ lav to pushing granny out of the window, animals and children floating by in the spring floods, Christmas food, aunts, and meeting God in the billiard room: “The Billiardroom...was huge – rather like an awful church...and I wasn’t really surprised when one hot sunny morning I walked in there to get cool and there was God, he was over by the fishy window and just glided up to me, I knew it was God although he looked like an enormous parchment coloured bag drawn up round the neck with cord, I had been expecting to see Him for a long time but I couldn’t help being overcome and fainted. When the grown ups found me they wouldn’t believe I had seen God...so they said I mustn’t eat crab, and I still don’t and I’ve never seen Him any more.

Comyns' family make the Mitfords seem normal. Wonderfully written and a lot of fun to read.
Profile Image for Tamsin.
14 reviews7 followers
April 23, 2020
I take it personally when I read bad Barbara Comyns reviews. She was a kind of genius we haven’t been trained to spot, she didn’t take herself seriously, she didn’t shut herself up in rooms and have meals brought to her, she just did what she did for her own fun and let her play instinct take her to places no one but her could ever imagine and what a shame so many people write her off as “quirky”
Profile Image for Mary Durrant .
347 reviews123 followers
March 27, 2016
A quirky read.
Barbara recounts her bitter sweet childhood.
Dark, chilling which shifts to humour.
The seasons come and go, the water swirls down the river, the ivy grows over the Windows.
Debts rise and the family home is sold dispersing the sisters among their relatives.
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 8 books200 followers
April 10, 2022
"When the grown ups found me they wouldn't believe I had seen God and I fainted rather a lot after that so they said I mustn't eat crab and I still don't and I've never seen Him any more."

A young woman still trapped in the emotional nascence of her childhood (and a poor speller to boot) recalls her youth in a tale of blistering savagery and laugh-out-loud morbidities.
Surely an autobiographical novel of sorts and considered unpublishable at the time for its flighty grimness, Comyns and her narrator (also named only once as Barbara) tell the story of five sisters growing up on a decaying estate somewhere in central England (a sixth sibling is effaced from the narrative mysteriously, very early on, at his/her request). The central axis of the novel and the sisters' upbringing is dysfunction, abuse, and crude behavior. Their deaf mother and alcoholic, long-suffering father beat the shit out of each other, wave guns around, and imagine things while the five sisters delight in floods, animal torture, flying around on fallen branches, tormenting one another, and unhealthy obsessions with death. Fickle governesses appear and disappear. Relatives are aghast at the barbarity of the girls. All of this is told through the naive reminiscences of the narrator and presages, in a way, the doom of adulthood through her observations.
Startling and brutal and hilarious, like a more experimental Elizabeth Taylor novel.
Profile Image for Troy Alexander.
196 reviews35 followers
March 13, 2022
Written not for publication but as stories for her children, Sisters by a River is a pastiche of memories about Barbara Comyn’s life growing up by the Avon River in Warwickshire in the 1910s and 1920s. It is a beautiful book that offers a glimpse into a strange, lost world.
Profile Image for Carrie .
980 reviews451 followers
February 8, 2019
We have here a childhood of the author and her sisters, it seems to have been interesting but horrific at the same time. Her parents are not overly loving in fact her mother is rather selfish and hysterical at times, her father liked his drink. The sisters, not all are mentioned, due to one not wanting to be named, seemed to be not overly enjoyable children. But that could also be due to their raising.
Profile Image for Sylvester (Taking a break in 2023).
2,041 reviews74 followers
May 13, 2013
Very odd. I don't quite get the point of it. It's not a true story, but some things are true. It was written for the author's children, but it's too adult for children. It's entertaining in it's weirdness, but tiring in it's lack of plot or perceivable point. So! A mash-up of many odd things. I haven't quite decided what I think of it.
Profile Image for J..
455 reviews184 followers
October 14, 2017
First attempt at writing for Barbara Comyns, a kind of experimental first step, for a young writer still wondering if she was even capable of doing so... Even so, it's far from the usual coming-of-age material, and manages to get inside the misconceptions of childhood without too much in the way of studied affect or reconsideration. We are introduced to the family and its environs at the moment of infant Barbara's birth, so we're already in non-documentary circumstances, somewhere in the wilds of Warwickshire. The time of the book is indeterminate, but between the wars, perhaps in the early twenties.

Nearly everything in the book is quotable, but it's maybe better to use Comyn's own words (from a 1947 edition Sisters introduction) to encapsulate :

The river is the Avon, and on its banks the five sisters are born. The river is frozen, the river is flooded, the sun shines on the water and moving lights are reflected on the walls of the house. It is Good Friday and the maids hang a hot cross bun from the kitchen ceiling. An earwig crawls into the sweep's ear and stays there for ten years. Moths are resurrected from the dead and bats become entangled in young girls' hair. Lessons are done in the greenish light under the ash-tree and always there is the sound of water swirling through the weir. A feeling of decay comes to the house, at first in a sudden puff down a dark passage and the damp smell of cellars, then ivy grows unchecked over the windows and angry shouts split the summer air, sour milk is in the larder and the father takes out his gun. The children see a dreadful snoring figure in a white nightshirt, then lot numbers appear on the furniture and the family is dispersed.

Comyns is an outsider figure in Uk literature, at once very grimly realistic and then also unafraid to be absurdist, macabre even, if it gets to the psychological truth a little better. Her later masterworks bear out the effectiveness of hard-splicing objective reality with untethered intuition--effectively producing reality-splintering insights that might also be madness. Her first stab at the occupation here shows none of that vaguely sinister sensibility yet, but holds little intimations of contradiction, of discrepancy. Sisters By A River has all the ingredients of the later work, but in perfectly reasonable childhood terms.

The line from this book to Vet's Daughter and Skin Chairs or Juniper Tree may be a daunting upwards arc to follow, but it is direct. The momentary lark, the lapse in logic or congruity that so characterize the imagination of childhood-- are only a drawn curtain or a cloudy sky away from things much more troubled and disquieting. Adulthood, say.
Profile Image for Maria Longley.
974 reviews8 followers
January 27, 2016
I am so grateful for the kind soul who recommended this novel. We see life from the point of view of a small girl in a ramshackle house - and family. The spelling, and the matter of fact way of telling the events, help create an astonishing atmosphere where the craziness is almost accepted as normal by us (which it was for the family) and the humour and horror juxtapose and seep through.

Parts of this were first published in a serial form in a magazine before anyone would publish this novel. It is more a collection of short snippets in a loosely chronological framework telling the tale of five of the six sisters by the river. And it's true, that is what is so incredible. And sad. But then it's also funny. Such a difficult book to describe and hold but I really loved it and am so glad to have read it. The introduction talks of Barbara Comyns' surreal eye and Chagallian viewpoint and I would agree that there is plenty of delightful evidence for that. [Aug 2015]

This merited a re-read as we were doing it for book club, and it's still as bonkers, and charming, and scary as before. This time I really relished all the little details and wished I could draw as there were plenty of moments I'd love to see illustrated:
Phillip the peacock walking around the billiard room while Daddy writes his letters
Granny in the picnic boat wrapped in veils, plumed hat and a feather boa
Barbara taking a bite out of the governess's biscuit-looking hat in return for walking through a field with cows in it
the girls going on strike when food was served that they didn't approve of
Palmer rescuing the governess's by boat from the cottage they lived in during Spring floods
Anglo Saxon aged bones getting tucked down the sides of morning-room chairs
frying minnows over the nightlight for the dolls
the boys in London roller skating on shiny tarred roads at dusk
[Jan 2016]
Profile Image for Chiffchaff Birdy.
75 reviews19 followers
January 11, 2016
This has turned into a binge-read of Barbara Comyns for me and this one didn't disappoint. A very engaging memoir-style story narrated from the point of view of the middle-ish daughter of a large family growing up in a wealthy environment that abruptly comes to an end.
I found that a lot of the themes (monkeys, parrots, moustaches, chest hair etc.) evident in her other books are here, which makes sense given that these seemed to be peculiarities of her family upbringing and this was her first novel (I think).
What I found most interesting was the narrated style was very close to the narrated style of Spoons and The Vets Daughter and it came to me on a walk that the oddness is that all three books are apparently narrated by an adult looking back and yet the 'adult' doesn't seem to have many of a 'normal' adult's understanding of the motivation of others. these adult narrators are child-like and naïve and I feel that this is why these three books feel very unusual. the narration is child-like but what's happening or being described is very adult indeed, esp in Spoons.
Profile Image for 🐴 🍖.
349 reviews28 followers
July 18, 2020
what we got here is sort of a literary shaggs own thing: at 1st blush the spelling/grammar/structure are all definitively WRONG but once you've recalibrated your reading apparatus it's all perfectly intelligible. plus could drowned livestock floating down the river & a midnight rain of giant hats & coffeebeans friend in candlefat for dolls & horrific domestic violence all cohabit in a text that makes prescriptivists happy? consider too how the dilapidated narrative functions as objective correlative for their tumbledown house which in turn serves as objective correlative to their jacked-up family life... in short, sh*t slaps. (as noted infra by others avoid the virago introduction, at least until after reading, since it's basically a synopsis of the novel... luv u guys but smh!!)
Profile Image for Hilary .
2,231 reviews398 followers
November 10, 2015
Memories of an abusive childhood told through the eyes of a child. I would have enjoyed this book more if the childhood had had some happier moments. I personally found the lighthearted way it was told, often with humour not comfortable when reading about domestic violence and child abuse but I see that this was the authors way of telling us this life seemed perfectly normal to the child. I also felt the purposely mispelt words were not needed to tell us that a child was speaking. I also felt as this was just before the war surely someone even in those days would have stepped in if things were really that bad.
Profile Image for jessica h.
401 reviews
July 28, 2017
This came out of nowhere for me! Absolutely loved this little read.

Sisters by a River isn't really a novel with a linear narrative structure like I was expecting. I would probably describe this more as a collection of vignettes, or snapshots, into the lives of this curious family.

From what I understand, this novel is semi-autobiographical. The narrative voice we hear throughout the book is from one of five sisters. She is named Barbara, the same as our author, although we don't actually find out her name out until the very end.

This book is a great example of really well executed, believable characterisation, achieved in a fairly small amount of pages, especially when there isn't much of a single plot to speak off, and it's perfectly done for me.

Honestly, none of the characters in this book are particularly nice people. The dad is an abusive drunk, the mum seems cold and detached, the grandma comes across as spiteful and selfish, and the children can be very cruel to each other and to the occasional animal (albeit often with good intentions gone awry.) There are also a whole other herd of oddball characters that pop up throughout the book, all with their faults too, getting up to some very strange antics. But weirdly, despite their cruelties, despite their unorthodox upbringings, despite their suspect behaviour, they can be quite endearing and I loved reading about their lives.

Interestingly, throughout the book, quite a few words are frequently misspelled - but this is very clearly on purpose, in order to stress that our protagonist is recalling childhood memories. Some people may have found this too obvious, and may have preferred more subtle devices to depict childhood, but I think this really helped in warming me to the characters. All in all, a surprising, original, fab read. I want more from Barbara Comyns asap!
Profile Image for Myfanwy.
Author 13 books176 followers
April 13, 2013
I absolutely love Barbara Comyns. No one can compare. This book is one of my favorites of those of hers I've read. She is all horror and beauty, picking a wound over and over again to marvel at the beauty of the fresh blood. Read her. Read her. Read her.
Profile Image for Danielle D.
106 reviews8 followers
February 8, 2014
Beautiful book. Very simple, tender, dreamy and endearing. Descriptions of all the little things that matter to the author and make her surroundings. You really enter this time and place with each short chapter. so lovely!
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