The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

This is one of those reviews where I can’t wait until the end to say that I that I loved the book. From the moment I glimpsed the first page I knew I could get on with this authors written style, and a couple of chapters in, I was totally involved in the world of Alice Rowland.

When I started Vet’s Daughter, I didn’t have much of an idea what the story would be about, so I was surprised at how sinister it was. The story follows Alice Rowlands, a young girl who grows up in a house surrounded a menagerie of animals with a brutal father (the Vet) and her downtrodden mother. Later, she moves away from home to a far more pleasant environment.

The book is written in the first person, and Alice’s voice is clear as a bell and compelling as she reveals her living circumstances. The animals in the house create a cacophony of noise and a claustrophobic atmosphere. A shrieking parrot screams when there is unrest in the house and Alice is constantly tending to the needs of ailing creatures such as a sick mongoose. The whole feeling is one of claustrophobia. Alice’s mother is a sad, small person, finally at the end of a life of years of abuse. Descriptions of brutality are never overplayed – they are matter of fact which makes them even more shocking. Her father’s callous actions build on one another to expose a monster of a person.

Only three weeks after her mother’s funeral her father brings home Rosa Fisher “The strumpet” from “The Trumpet”. When Rosa starts trying to introduce Alice to men, things go from bad to worse and her only escape is through Henry Peebles a locum vet who comes to the practise after her mother’s death and takes her on day trips. I worried for Alice at every step, trying to work out Peebles’ intentions and wondering how on earth she would get away from such an oppressive and dangerous environment.

When Alice does finally escape from home, the relief is tangible. As she describes taking in her new environment I felt as if I was experiencing it with her:

“When I went outside, the sun had just risen and it was very light. The garden was large and open, and beyond it lay the water, shimmering between the pine trees. Through a small fir plantation there was a narrow path. I followed it to the water. This is how I’d hoped the Island would be; but it was far more beautiful.”

While life isn’t perfect, it opens her up to new experiences including meeting a young man. However something rather strange starts to happen to Alice which for me was quite unexpected and adds rather a surreal flavour to the book. She discovers that she has an unusual ability. I was quite taken aback by the strangeness of it all but it also added to making this a very special and original book for me. I don’t want to elaborate too much as I really enjoyed how events unfolded in such an unusual way.

The Vet’s Daughter is an offbeat and quirky read. I became completely involved in it. It was unsettling rather than upsetting for me because Alice’s narrative felt quite emotionally detached and this detachment only added to the stark horror of her situation. While Comyns’ writing style is descriptive, she uses adjectives rarely, describing things simply but somehow managing to produce a vivid impression. I was stunned by how much is covered in this book and how much impact it had on me. Highly recommended.

I read Vet’s Daughter as part of a readalong with Simon T of Stuckinabook and Claire of Paperback Reader. You can read Simon’s review here, and Claire will be posting her thoughts soon too.

My rating:
10 out of 10

24 responses to “The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

  1. Wow, 10 out of 10! So glad you enjoyed it – and that it came your way in the book swap at the bloggers’ meet-up. A really great review too, I love the excerpt you chose – and you’re so right about the first section being claustrophobic, and now you’ve mentioned about the absence of adjectives, that really does help create Alice’s voice.

    • novelinsights

      I so did! I have been wondering afterwards if I was just in a particularly buoyant mood on scoring this book but…nope! I just really liked this one…

  2. Wow, that sounds fanatstic. I haven´t heard of this book or its author, so thanks for bringing it to my attention! 🙂

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  4. Lovely, enthused review, Polly! I enjoyed it too and have now posted my thoughts.

    The writing style is deceptively simple and yet achieves so much; I was impressed by how immersed I became in the narrative despite its simplicity.

    • novelinsights

      I too was totally involved in this book and like you am impressed with how it achieved so much with such a simple style.

  5. This sounds great! And 10 out of 10! I should definitely look out for this one.

    • novelinsights

      A word of warning. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea this one, but it suited me down to the ground. Be prepared for a bit of oddness!

  6. Offbeat and Quirky sounds like my kind of read! 🙂

  7. This sounds great. I’ve never read any Comyns but all three of you seem to have really enjoyed it and I’m tempted now.

  8. Yes, you can’t help but “worry along” with Alice. I just wanted things to work out for her…and for the parrot! The novel definitely makes me want to read more of her work.

  9. I haven’t heard of this one before, thanks for introducing me to it with your review, it sounds great! The cover is very pretty too. 🙂

    • novelinsights

      It is, although you’ll have to have a bit of a hunt as it’s out of print. This one seems to have plenty of copies on Amazon though.

  10. Ok if it gets a 10 out of 10 then I may just have to borrow this one off you if you would be so kind. It sounds like everyone who has read it has really rather enjoyed it so I might now have to join the party late lol.

  11. Such a pleasure to read your review – I think that you are right about the vividness of BC’s and the way that she manages to do this without being very wordy or adjective heavy. Also she is the master of the unsuspecting moment of darkness – moments of horror that creep into the narrative and under the skin of ordinary life – I think that is one of her most distinctive characteristics as a writer. Have you read any other Comyns? If you like the Vet’s Daughter then I suspect that you would also get along with Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead…

    Hope that you are currently reading another good book – happy Friday


    • Hello Hannah, so glad you liked the review. I haven’t read anything else by Comyns but I will do now! I got a copy of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths at Christmas but I will defintely keep my eyes open for those others that you mention. Have you read Spoons?

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