Category Archives: Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns

3.5 stars3.5/5

It was Stuck in a Book’s Simon who introduced me properly to quirky Barbara Comyns when I joined in the readalong for The Vet’s Daughter (my 5/5 review of which can be found here).

Virago Modern Classics, 1983 edition, 224 pages - Christmas Gift.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is quite a different book, but with the same off-beat writing style and while the main character is named Sophia, it is also quite clearly autobiographical in nature.

The blurb on the book aptly sums up what could be described as the theme of the book – “marry in haste, repent at leisure”. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the story of a young woman Sophia, who at twenty-one marries an artist named Charles. They barely have a penny to rub together and much to the dismay of their family and their own, Sophia becomes pregnant almost immediately. The couple live a bohemian lifestyle in 1930’s London on a very limited income from Sophia’s odd-jobs. Charles is more concerned with painting than providing for his young family and while there are moments of happiness at the start of the novel, life becomes harder and harder for them.

Because the novel is written from Sophia’s perspective, we never really understand Charles that well. He seems feckless and at times downright cruel, but his actions seemed to be mainly due to immaturity more than anything else, which unfortunately at times results in quite tragic moments. In many ways though, Sophia seems quite accepting of Charles’ failings throughout most of the book and the overall impression is one of extreme naivety on the part of both Sophia and Charles.

What I enjoyed most about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths was the authors unique voice. Throughout the book, Sophia speaks to the reader in such a conversational tone, it is as if you are sitting having a cup of tea together! Her tone is matter of fact, and mostly lighthearted despite the fact that there are some pretty serious moments in which she surely must have felt devastated. It is probably because her descriptions at times seem quite childlike which makes the account so poignant. For example, Sophia describes how she is treated by the hospital staff when her first child is born:

“The nurse was so angry. She said I should set a good example and that I had disgusting habits. I just felt a great longing to die and escape but instead I walked behind the disgusted nurse, all doubled up with shame and pain.”

The beauty of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the way that it captures the beautiful moments between the difficult times. One or two particular moments come to mind – like when the milkman accidentally delivers a pint of cream instead of milk “we ate everything simply smothered in cream…”, or when Sophia describes how she had brightened up their bare flat by painting all the furniture with a coat of sea green paint.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is an off-beat and bittersweet book. It’s an easy and enjoyable read while at the same time being really quite sad in parts. Like a bright splash of colour on a canvas, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, paints a vivid impression of 1930’s London through the eyes of a young woman going through turbulent times with beautiful brevity and style.

Do you like quirky books? If so what authors would you recommend?

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