Well, that was quite a journey. This 1959 novel by Barbara Comyns starts off seeming like one kind of book, but as it goes on the story gets more and more odd until the oddness is the center of the story. A far-too-realistic novel about a neglected and abused young woman becomes a story of magic, a fairy tale gone awry when her escape route becomes her prison. Maybe, in the end, it’s all one story after all.
Seventeen-year-old Alice lives in a poor South London neighborhood with her father and mother and a menagerie of animals that come and go, sometimes going home and sometimes to the vivisectionist. At his best, her father is cold, but he can also be openly cruel and demanding. Both Alice and her mother seem terrified of displeasing him. When her mother is ill, she pleads with Alice not to tell him that she’d been lying down to rest.
When Alice’s mother dies, Alice’s situation becomes more desperate. She reaches out to one of his colleagues, a man who appear to be in love with her but whom she does not love in return, and he gives her a way out as a companion to his mother, a woman engulfed in grief and living in a partially burned home under the care of terrible couple who take pleasure in treating her poorly.
Alice, meanwhile, discovers an unexpected source of freedom. She realizes that she can float in the air. But just as she’s starting to learn to control and enjoy this ability, it becomes its own prison, with disastrous results.
In trying to work out what this book is actually about, I keep coming back to the fact that her father is a veterinarian, and the women in his home are treated no better than the animals in his care. The fate of the animals in his care seems completely subject to human will, and Alice’s fate is completely subject to the will of others.
At one point in the book, a parrot who lives in Alice’s house because the owners pay the vet to keep it is consigned to a downstairs lavatory because its chatter annoys Rosa, Alice’s father’s new girlfriend. Banished by its real owners, it is then banished again by its caretakers. Alice and the parrot are alike, right down to having their most notable skill become their biggest source of trouble.
Every bit of Alice’s life, even the good parts, is governed by someone else. She has to follow her father’s rules to the letter. The few bits of freedom she has are those he allows or those she sneaks. Her only way to get help is through another man. One man she meets attempts to rape her, and another woos her only to abandon her without a word. She never gets to make a proper choice for herself. She doesn’t have much more freedom than a pet, but she has a human mind.
All of the woman are pets, to some degree. Some are treated well, but hardly any of them get to make their own choices. All are at the mercy of the men who care for them. They may attempt to intercede for one another, but the success of those attempts are still subject to the choices of men.
But how does the turn toward the supernatural fit in with this idea? Maybe Alice’s ability is a way of showing that freedom cannot come through ordinary means. Women’s earthly talents are no good in this universe, so perhaps they need an unearthly talent. Yet, for Alice, that talent is also a prison, turning her into an organ grinder’s monkey. Literally breaking the law of gravity isn’t enough to free her.
I read this with the Slaves of Golconda online book group, and I’m very interested to learn what they’ve made of it.