28 April 2011

Book Review: The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

The room had the sickly smell of caged birds and spiteful women...
This is the first novel I have read by Barbara Comyns. I probably would have picked it up just because it was a Virago with a cool cover, but I had also been seeing her name around the blogosphere quite a bit. I thought the title The Skin Chairs sounded creepy but thought that it couldn't really mean what it sounded like. But indeed it did. Comyns actually wrote about chairs covered in human skin. Granted they don't play a huge role in the book, but it is creepy nonetheless. Add in animal and child abuse/neglect and the creepy factor really goes up. From the vantage point of 2011 (or 2001, or 1991, or 1981...) much of the abuse and neglect would have been remedied with the appropriate government social services. But in the early 20th century people kind of turned a blind eye. Oddly enough even with the creepiness and sadness The Skin Chairs is mostly a cheerful book about the adult world seen through the eyes of ten-year-old Frances.

Pretty typical English domestic tale. The kind of book Persephone might publish. Recently widowed mother, snooty relatives, reduced circumstances, eccentric neighbors, and with more than a few humorous moments. I quite enjoyed it but I am not sure if this review will benefit from further description. I feel like any plot points I may describe would be too spoilery. The writing is good and there are many likable characters. Even the villains have a heart--with the possible exception of Vanda. She just seems good for nothing and bad for everything.

Read it.


  1. I recently read and reviewed another of her books here:

    It was published (re-published, actually) by a cool publishing group called the Dorothy Project. She's kind of an unsettling writer, as you noted.

  2. Love that quote you posted... so very visceral! This sounds like a book I would like very much. You know I love books that feature bitchy ladies!

  3. I've read her Our Spoons came from Woolworths which I thought was a bit difficult to believe (as far as the naivety of the main character was concerned). I then realized that I am looking at the situation in the present times and being quite stupidly judgemental! I liked the descriptiveness of the story though. This also sounds similar and should be good. Thanks for the review.

  4. Well, you know I love her, so I'm pleased you enjoyed it!

  5. I too keep seing her name round the blogosphere and have never read anything by her. I must. Thanks to your commenter Amy for pointing out the Dorothy Project too.

  6. Not read this one (or anything else by her), but have to say, I want to, on reading your review, creepy as it sounds. Must keep an eye out for it.


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