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Sisters by a River

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  415 ratings  ·  81 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 194 pages
Published July 4th 2013 by Virago Press (UK) (first published 1947)
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Average rating 3.81  · 
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Apr 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Those who face the harsh life with a sense of humor
Recommended to Dolors by: Fionnuala
Shelves: read-in-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 perversel
Dec 13, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: virago
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
'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 ch
Dec 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoir, women-writers
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 a ...more

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 old
Dec 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 himsel
Sep 03, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 look ...more
Diane Barnes
Mar 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
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,
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 194 ...more
Beth Bonini
May 29, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Oct 25, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 bein ...more
Sep 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviews
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 d
Aug 01, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: october-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 mo ...more
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.
Mary Durrant
Oct 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
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.
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.
Apr 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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”
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 o ...more
Chiffchaff Birdy
Jan 11, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 nov
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 ...more
Nov 08, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Nice idea but the cutesy childlike narration and spelling mistakes is just too unconvincing. How many children can spell 'claustrophobia' before they can spell 'blossom'?
Avril Caryer
Aug 23, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
And I thought I had a bad childhood! Written with wit and humour.
Sophy H
Oct 05, 2019 rated it did not like it
Eugh, really disappointing drivel!

The style of childish writing with (hopefully) deliberate misspellings is frustrating and so bloody distracting!! I could feel myself tutting internally!!

The narrative is all over the place, infantile and completely uninteresting.

I was expecting better things after reading The Vet's Daughter.
The Literary Chick
Aug 12, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Barbara Comyns is a Shirley Jacksonish treasure. Think Life Among The Savages. Only darker. Much darker. Sweet, twisted Sherwood Anderson-type apples.
Nov 27, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-fiction
This slight novel was a dreamily told reminiscence of a vague, haphazard, and neglectful childhood at a British country manor during the early part of the 20th century. I believe it is based on the actual experiences of the author. The book takes the form of a series of first-person vignettes that form a hazy narrative of a country childhood. The narrator and her four sisters grow up benignly neglected by their parents, receiving perfunctory guidance and spotty education from a series of governe ...more
Artemis Eclectica
Jul 27, 2015 rated it did not like it
I do wish publishers would desist from having Introductions that give away the plot. It spoils the surprise of the story. Publishers take note.

As for the spelling and general writing ... It was appalling. If the publishers would clean up the writing it might be an interesting book. Even Henry Miller couldn't spell and the publishers would clean up his mistakes. The most annoying read in a while.
Sep 01, 2016 rated it it was ok
This is very similar in style to the other books I've read by this author i.e. a little disjointed and a bit more whimsical than I'm comfortable with. It sketches scenes from the lives of a well-to-do family living in reduced circumstances in a rambling old house in the country. Everyone has their eccentricities, great tragedies occur and it doesn't seem to really affect anyone very deeply. Amusing in places but too "bitty" for me.
Feb 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Danielle D
Jan 29, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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!
Apr 23, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very dreamlike and strange but all the more interesting for it. It seems very reminiscent of Nancy Mitford and, to a lesser extent, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle. This book is like a darker, more quirky view on that world.
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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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