Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Growing up in Edwardian south London, Alice Rowlands longs for romance and excitement, for a release from a life that is dreary, restrictive and lonely. Her father, a vet, is harsh and domineering; his new girlfriend brash and lascivious. Alice seeks refuge in memories and fantasies, in her rapturous longing for Nicholas, a handsome young sailor, and in the blossoming of what she perceives as her occult powers. A series of strange events unfolds that leads her, dressed in bridal white, to a scene of ecstatic triumph and disaster among the crowds on Clapham Common. The Vet's Daughter is a uniquely vivid, witty and touching story of love and mystery.

Goodreads description

I hadn't planned to read (and review) The Vet's Daughter this week, but I found it in a bookshop and started reading it in the cafe. I was so impressed by this book and the author's ability that I had to continue reading to the end. 

The first thing that impressed me was the faultless use of first-person narrative in the book. This is a tremendously difficult thing to do at the best of times, but to do this when the narrator is a naive young woman is extremely hard, and yet Comyns never allows Alice to know more or have more spirit than is appropriate. We readers glimpse what lies beneath and watch with horror as we see, as Alice can not, what certain developments might signify.  Not everything is explained, but that is because not everything is shown to Alice. 

The book was published in the Virago Modern Classics series and is a devastating study of the appalling and powerless position of women in Britain at the turn of the 20th century. Sadly it could be the tale of many women in many parts of the world now. Both Alice and her mother are trapped in their dreary home with Alice's tyrannical father. Alice's description of her mother early in the book is haunting:  
Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.  

This fascinating book was first published in 1959 (before the arrival of magic realism in  British mainstream fiction). We are now used to the likes of Alice Hoffman using magic realism in modern contexts, but that was not the case then. The book was therefore ahead of its time. At the same time it looks back at the golden age of English 19th century literature. There is something Gothic about the book and the portrayal of the monstrous father. Many of the other characters verge on the grotesque in a way that reminded me of those of Dickens. 

One would like Alice to escape and gain happiness. And for a time the levitational powers that are the magic realist element in the book do give Alice an opportunity to control something in her life. But in the end they become a tool for her father to gain money. This may be a modern fairytale, but it doesn't come with a happy ending. If you want to identify with the central character you will have problems. This is feminist magic realism, but the magic does not empower and the realism accurately portrays Alice as a young woman of her time.  

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