Thursday 27 January 2011

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

It's about time I paid heed to Virago Reading Week, which has been popping up all over the blogosphere this, er, week. Thanks Rachel and Carolyn! I love it when publishers are hailed in this manner - long-term SiaB readers may recall I ran an I Love Hesperus week many moons ago, and of course have enjoyed Persephone readalongs, and cheered from the sidelines for NYRB Classics. As luck would have it - it certainly wasn't my organisational ability - I happened to be halfway through a Virago when the week began, and even my current sluggish reading pace has allowed me to finish off The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns.

Props to Thomas (that's a good American expression, right? As is that 'right?' there.) for his Virago banner, by the way. If you think you recognise those pics, head over here for Thomas' competition.

It's no secret that I love Barbara Comyns - she's probably in my top five favourite authors, certainly top ten - and I'm fast reaching the end of her books. Just two novels to go... so I'm treasuring them as I go, and The Skin Chairs is no exception.

When I first started reading Comyns, I thought her novels were bizarrely different from one another, in terms of style. It's only now, looking back, that I realise I started off with the three most disparate I could have chosen - Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, and The Juniper Tree. Having read more of her books, I realise that she does have an identifiable tone - surreal but matter-of-fact; an unnerving but captivating mixture, and one which leads to a very unusual angle on events. As shown most effectively in The Vet's Daughter, but also on occasion in The Skin Chairs, even cruelties are dealt with in this unshockable, even tone. Here's an example:

When she had gone we let Esme's mice loose in the sitting-room, although they didn't seem to enjoy it much, keeping close to the skirting board most of the time. There used to be a girl in our village who was continually beaten by her parents and I remembered she used to walk like that, close to the walls.

Lest you think this is a miserable book, I must add the scolding given to children when they sit on some graves: 'Nanny found us and said that we had no respect for our bottoms or the dead.' There are plenty of laugh-aloud moments.

The Skin Chairs is told in the voice of ten-year-old Frances, one of six children, who must go and stay with her Great-Aunt's family: 'My mother[...] sometimes became tired of us and would dispatch us to any relation who would agree to have one or two of the family to stay.' Shortly after this, and having endured Aunt Lawrence's unwelcoming home, Frances' father dies and the rest of her family move to an unlikeable, small modern house. Relative poverty is a theme throughout Comyns' writing, and she relishes writing of their privations - nightdresses made out of old sheets; 'not being able to play with paint', and so forth.

As with other Comyns novels, not much happens. This one has a little more of a central thread through it than some, in terms of the family's destiny, but Comyns is best at her bizarre hangers-on. Chief amongst these is Mrs. Alexander, with her red-purple hair, turbans, mustard-coloured car, and golden shoes (repainted each evening by her chauffeur.) She keeps monkeys, and cleverly builds a wall after buying a piano, so that the bailiffs can't remove it when she goes into debt. Then there is young widow Vanda, who neglects her baby, but thinks she's doing a good job as the infant never goes short of orange juice. How Comyns thinks of all the tiny details, I can't imagine. So many are bizarre and wonderful - unexpected, but not dwelt upon - and always mentioned so calmly.
The first day at school was not so bad as I expected. The worst part was when most of the girls trooped off into the dining-room and we had to eat our sandwiches in one of the classrooms. The only other occupant was a particularly plain girl wearing a patch plaid blouse and eating a pork pie. She said she adored eating pork pies and ate them in her bath.

And those skin chairs of the title? Yes, they're human skin, and belong to a Major who lives in a large house in the village. They pop up near the beginning of the novel, and reappear every now and then - with some significance, but the true justification for the novel being called The Skin Chairs doesn't rest with that. I think they're the perfect symbol for what Comyns does best: the domestication of the surreal; the macabre passed over with matter-of-fact interest, and no more - there is probably a girl eating a pork pie close by, which will be equally involving.

If you haven't read any Comyns yet, I urge you to do so (The Skin Chairs is going for a penny on Amazon.) The more I read of her, the more I feel sure that she has been unjustly neglected - and is one of the most intriguing novelists of the twentieth-century.


  1. Wonderful, Simon. I own this and have yet to read it, which could be said of most of my books, so there you go. I am a bit scared of Comyns, largely because her books sound so eccentric, but you have made her seem more than approachable, so I am inspired to give her a go. SO glad you could take part in the Reading Week - book serendipity strikes again!

  2. Hmm, I don't know, Simon. When you pointed out that the title represents chairs actually made of skin, I felt my own flesh crawl a little bit. Is there one maybe a little less "macabre" for someone like myself who's never read Comyns?
    BTW, I laughed out loud at your Barbara Cartland sketch, just forgot to tell you. :)

  3. I was always looking for The Vets Daughter. Never got to it but found Our Spoons.... which I really enjoyed. I think I too would find it tough with the Skin Chairs but there are so many others as well.

  4. Comyns is one of my own favorites too but this is one I haven't read -- must do so soon!!! Thanks for the great review.

  5. I am yet to read any Comyns and really must as you and Polly have both praised her on your blogs and I have still not done anything about it. This sounds like it could be just up my street - the quote from the church yard made me laugh a lot!

  6. Beautifully taken picture! I love Comyns eclecticity (is there such a word?) and it is her attention to the tiny details which makes the books so wonderful I think

  7. Every review I read of a Barbara Comyns book convinces me I need to give her a try. It seems that her books are not easy to come by here in the U.S. (I never happen upon them in bookstores), but I may break down and order one once I've made room on my shelves.

  8. I have yet to read anything by Comyns and really feel out of the loop for not knowing what she's like. But any book that makes you laugh out loud, even just a little, is right up my street.

  9. What great book titles! I've never read Comyns, but now I really want to check out her work.

  10. Great review Simon but I think the title is too macabre for me... Especially after reading Under the Skin by Michael Faber.

  11. I've discovered Comyns this week and I couldn't agree with you more about her wonderful, unique writing. She's definitely an author to be savoured, but I think I'll have to make this my next one of hers, having read your review!

  12. Rachel - thanks :) And so sorry that it took me ages to get involved with VRW, it's such a wonderful idea! I'd love, ideally, to sweep everything else off the table and indulge in Viragos for a month. Do give Comyns a go - I *think* you'd love her. Not certain... but I think you would.

    Susan - oddly, although I am really squeamish, the idea of skin chairs doesn't bother me at all! Perhaps because I can't begin to imagine the logistics of it... As for starting with a different Comyns... they all have elements of the macabre, to varying degrees... maybe Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead? Hmm... And thank you for what you say about the sketch :)

    Mystica - what a shame it hasn't turned up in a shop yet - happy hunting! - but I'm glad you found Our Spoons. Not my favourite, but I think I need to re-read it.

    Harriet - I think you'll like this one as much as you did The Vet's Daughter. I'd lend it to you, but sadly I have promised it to someone else for quite a while... Out of interest, which other Comyns have you read so far?

    Simon - oh, Simon, you must! Only a penny on Amazon...

    Verity - thanks, I was pleased with the way it came out :). If eclecticity isn't a word, then it ought to be - and I think Comyns' attention to detail is spectacular, and always a little off-centre.

    Teresa - do! Two are in print in the US, and they're my two favourite Comyns novels; The Vet's Daughter (NYRB Classics) and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (Dorothy)

    Darlene - hope you have luck tracking one down; so my reply to Teresa, above, for Comyns novels in print in the US!

    Mindy - she does definitely have a way with book titles!

    Willa - as I said to Susan above, I was surprisingly un-put-off by the idea of skin chairs... but if that *does* put you off, try one of her other novels!

    Old English Rose - so glad another reader has successfully discovered Comyns! I think you'll like this one, hope you manage to get a copy...

  13. Oh Simon, you are dangerous to my TBR. I just had a book binge today and now I want this one! I do love Comyns and this one sounds brilliant although it makes me a little sad to wonder about the dark themes as these must have been influenced by her life somehow.

  14. Polly - only 1p on Amazon... tempt, tempt!

  15. I read 'Our Spoons came from Woolworths' for Virago Week and enjoyed it very much. However, I had decided I really mustn't buy any more books for a while. But... 1p on amazon... I think I must rush over there while there are some left! Thanks!

    I agree with what you said about her way of describing the macabre. You've put into words what I couldn't. It's an innocent way of relating events that I loved in 'Spoons'.

  16. Dear Simon - I can't believe that I am only just getting around to commenting on this - thank you for a wonderful review. I think she has definate style - the interesting question to me is where she got it from; Which ones *haven't* you read?

  17. I love Comyns. She's one of my favorite authors, too. Best of all her books is her first, Sisters by a River, written for her children about her own childhood. It is in the voice of a child too, and has the unforgettable line, "Next to Mary in our family was a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they should hate to appear in it...." This book set the tone for the books to follow. A wonderful and horrible portrait of a particular Victorian family.

  18. Leslie - thanks for stopping by! I have read Sisters By A River, a couple of times - in fact, I was even lucky enough to give a little talk on it to the Bidford History Society, being the village in which it is based. One of the men there had known her as a child!

    My favourite of her books is Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, with The Vet's Daughter second. I still have a couple to read (Mr. Fox and A Touch of Mistletoe) - I can't bear the idea of running out!


I've now moved to, and all my old posts are over there too - do come and say hello :)

I probably won't see your comment here, I'm afraid, but all my archive posts can also be found at