Saturday, December 5, 2009

The House of Dolls

Barbara Comyns is a writer I have problems with. I found her first in Oxfam when I picked up a copy of ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ (I actually thought I was buying ‘The Bronte’s Went to Woolworths’ which I had also seen and then had to go back for). I found it a deeply moving book, and when I found ‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’ a few weeks later I was really hooked. Hooked enough to order ‘Sisters by a River’ new from amazon – which really disappointed me, and since then I’ve had mixed feelings about Comyns.

At her best I find her dark, funny, deeply disturbing and very disarming, at other times I’m left wondering why I bothered. ‘Sisters by a River’ is rather like that it’s some of Comyns earliest writing (before she learned to spell, or found someone to spell for her) it has been published as it was written and I found it hard going to read, it’s also a very fragmented book – essentially stories from Comyns childhood that she later told her own children, she uses much the same material to far better effect in ‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’.

By this time I’d already acquired ‘The House Of Dolls’ and ‘The Juniper Tree’ which have since languished in various corners waiting for proper attention. I’m finding lunch a great opportunity to work through short but not entirely appealing books on my shelf (we all need a break from being polite to customers and reading seems to be the order of the day in the dining room. Perfect for me.) I’d been told that ‘The House Of Dolls’ was ok but not Comyns at her best and it’s an assessment I agree with. However I liked the sound of a book about middle aged prostitutes written by Comyns who has a way of delivering tragic and shocking material in a heartbreakingly deadpan manner.

In this respect ‘The House of Dolls’ doesn’t disappoint. It’s the story of six women – all without a man in their lives – and all trying to find ways to cope with growing up and growing old under one roof. The roof in a shabby part of Kensington belongs to Amy Doll, a young widow who lives in the basement with her daughter Hester. Widowhood has forced her to let rooms, and penury has forced her aging tenants into prostitution, some with rather more enthusiasm than others. I think if their’s a moral it’s that men give, and men take away, leaving women to pick up the pieces. There is also something of a theme about age, Hester who at 14 seems to be avoiding womanhood, Amy Doll who meets and marries a policeman (his appearance is the catalyst for the breakup of the brothel) initially inhabits a middle aged role of universal motherhood until she’s transformed back into a young bride, the other women in the house walk a thin line between middle age and old age.

Of the four whores upstairs only one is a truly a woman in search of independence, and she seems to find it – she earns enough on her back to buy herself another life elsewhere. Another left destitute by widowhood finds love with a dentist from Putney who never does learn of her profession. She too gets another chance for a happy ending. What’s left are Bertie and Evelyn, women who have long ago lost any grip on truth or reality, deep into middle age still trying hard to hold onto youth, oblivious to the fact that they are seen by everyone around them as old.

Comyns doesn’t over stress the unfairness of the double standards which apply to men and women’s sexual conduct, and doesn’t make any bones about how hideous (or unrepentant) Bertie and Evelyn are, but I think she makes the point nonetheless. Her touch is equally light and effective in exploring the perception of age, and really this book should work better but somehow I found it didn’t entirely come together; at her best Comyns holds nothing back, but in ‘The House Of Dolls’ I felt she could have gone further. That said it’s still a thought provoking and satisfying, if not always comfortable read that’s made me feel much more enthusiastic about the prospect of plenty more Comyns to read.


  1. I've never read Barbara Comyns though of course I know she's a VMC author. I think I'll look out for Our Spoons Came From Woolworths first before the other ones. The House of Dolls sounds like an interesting premise though. I'm not sure if it's also a VMC book.

  2. 'Our Spoons Came From Woolworths' is a great place to start - or at least I found it a very moving book - happy hunting:)

  3. The house of dolls is one of the few Comyns books that I have yet to read. I have found myself so intrigued by her books though - she is quirky and I love her writing style.

  4. Your review of 'The Skin Chairs' really intrigued me, it's such a horrible idea, and so like Comyns to take it and make something of it. It's deffinatley one I'm looking out for.

  5. Barbara Comyns is probably one of my favourite authors now, but her later novels (The House of Dolls, The Juniper Tree, Mr. Fox... actually I haven't read Mr. Fox yet) are so different from her early ones. My least favourite so far is actually Our Spoons, but I too sometimes come away not sure what I think of her novels. But I do know that Who Was Changed is my favourite.