The Vet's Daughter
by Barbara Comyns (Virago) 1959
The Vet's Daughter, by Barbara Comyns, is a novel with all the compression of a well constructed short story. The author has found a perfect balance between real world references and imaginative elements that allow the work to become a surreal commentary on cruelty, suffering, and salvation. The narrator is a young girl, Alice Rowland, who lives in a house where her father conducts a veterinary practice. Alice Rowland has an innocent voice that delivers both the extraordinary and the mundane as equally accepted yet baffling.
On the first page, she tells us, "I entered the house. It was my home and it smelt of animals, though there was lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak... 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 passage sets the tone for the narrator's family life. It also sets the tone of the book, which is simultaneously innocent and ominous. Singular objects--a bit of fur, a shopping bag, the mother's teeth--take on weight and add together toward terrifying implications.
The daughter, needing permission to go out walking, visits the father in his office. "The door was propped open by a horse's hoof without a horse joined to it, and I looked through. He was sewing in a Peke's eye. He used chloroform, but I went away because I couldn't bear to see him sewing a dog like that."
As the novel develops, the narrator lives briefly in a house with holes in the floor and sky visible through the ceiling. The story grows increasingly dreamlike and nightmarish.
Barbara Comyns, born between 1909 and 1912, was self-taught. She lived a life very much like that of a hard working, self-sufficient though struggling, artist of any time. She married young, had two children, divorced, then supported herself and her children by working as an artist's model and apartment manager, and by fixing up and selling used cars. She lived through the wars in Europe, married a second time, and kept writing. Her ingenuity and strong sense of self have no doubt contributed to making this one of the most charming, heartbreaking, and original novels I've read.