|The House of Dolls / Barbara Comyns|
London: Methuen, 1990, c1989
This is a book I picked up secondhand, partly on the strength of Barbara Comyns' name, and partly because of that wacky cover. It's a short novel so I read it pretty much straight away, and over one afternoon. It's an odd one!
Amy Doll is raising her 13 year old daughter Hetty alone, and to make ends meet she rents out the upper rooms of her house to four older women. Those four women, to make ends meet in their own turn, have taken to entertaining older gentlemen upstairs. Amy forbids Hetty from going upstairs after dark, and always has the radio on -- it's not so much what is going on that bothers her, it's that Hetty might twig.
But then a local policeman starts calling on Amy, and we can see what might happen...
The four women upstairs are evoked with their particular individual natures -- their quirks, rivalries, and reliance on one another are all delineated. They use their connections to the old boys network to find their clients, who seem to treat their parlour like an old-fashioned men's club, with a little extra on offer. These women are a bit haggard and brash; I don't think Comyns can write quiet or dull. Their stories are sad, though: the difficulties of older women making their way in life are made clear.
Comyns was in her 80s when she wrote this, her last book, so perhaps it has some personal knowledge behind what it was like to scrabble for survival. But this book isn't like her much earlier and much better known titles. It doesn't have the strange energy or surreality of The Vet's Daughter, for example. It is more situated in everyday life, with reality grounding the events.
The characters are an interesting study, and Hetty is the innocent figure in all of this, which offsets the grimness found even in the frivolity of the women's parties. It's all about women, how they manage, how they change, how they can shape what lies ahead (or not). That's what most intrigued me about this story. It wasn't spectacular, but it wasn't a bad read either, offering some themes to gnaw on afterward.