Read The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns Online


"'Could I see the chairs, please?'... 'Chairs, chairs. What does the child mean?... Oh, she means the chairs in your hall, the ones your husband had covered with skin. I'm afraid she is a morbid little thing.' She giggled and bounced about on her rickety chair."Her father dies and the ten-year-old Frances, her mother and assorted siblings are taken under the wing of their"'Could I see the chairs, please?'... 'Chairs, chairs. What does the child mean?... Oh, she means the chairs in your hall, the ones your husband had covered with skin. I'm afraid she is a morbid little thing.' She giggled and bounced about on her rickety chair."Her father dies and the ten-year-old Frances, her mother and assorted siblings are taken under the wing of their horsey relations, led by bullying Aunt Lawrence. Their new home is small and they can't afford a maid. Mother occasionally dabs at the furniture with a duster and sister Polly rules the kitchen. Living in patronised poverty isn't much fun but Frances makes friends with Mrs. Alexander who has a collection of monkeys and a yellow motor car, and the young widow, Vanda, who is friendly if the Major isn't due to call. But times do change and one day Aunt Lawrence gets her come-uppance and Frances goes to live in the house with "the skin chairs."...

Title : The Skin Chairs
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780860684800
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 208 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

The Skin Chairs Reviews

  • Ben Winch
    2019-05-06 00:40

    I'm halfway through The Skin Chairs and my trust in Barbara Comyns is near total. I'm not sure I can describe this book, which on the surface is anything but experimental, but I've never read anything like it. I mean, on one level, sure, there's plenty like it. It's the story of growing up in an English village in the early part of the twentieth century, and yes, on the literal level, the back-cover blurb is accurate: it's a 'quirky novel describing the adult world with a young girl's eye'. But what an eye! It misses nothing. Page for page, line for line, I doubt there is a denser writer than Barbara Comyns in terms of sheer detail, or at least no denser writer who retains her naturalness. It's – quietly – mindblowing. Every line speaks of the real, the tangible. Never does she wander into abstractions, yet the spiritual, the intangible, are always present. We were allowed a night-light, because several times during the night I had disturbed the house by screaming fits caused by nightmares. They may have been caused by the shock of Father's death, for I had never suffered from them before. One night I dreamt that Mother's head had been severed and made into a pork pie. Although it was a pork pie, I could still see it was a dead head. There was another fearful dream that Father was floating down the canal, all enlarged with water, and that eels were living in him. Now that there was a night-light, I did not cry for long when I woke up after one of these frightful dreams, but I dared not go to sleep again in case another came. To keep myself awake and calm myself I would go through each room at home so that it almost seemed as if I was there. I tried to recall everything they contained: the yellow rug in the drawing room, which we used to cut pieces from to make dolls' wigs; the faded morning-room curtains with monkeys climbing up them – it was always a sign that summer was coming when they were hung; the enormous brass bedstead in the spare room, all draped in chintz curtains, with its feather mattress – sometimes we slept there when we were ill, because it was on the sunny side of the house, and Father used to thump the mattress to make a hollow for us to lie in.It's tempting to think that so much detail could only be autobiographical, but if so it's hard to imagine how Barbara Comyns could have stored enough recollections to pull off this feat more than once – and the introduction informs us that this is not an autobiographical novel ('Only the skin chairs are true, I saw them,' said Comyns). Also impressive is the tightrope-walker's sense of balance implicit in this writing: never does it collapse, nor even threaten to, under its weight of detail; always character, emotion, instinct and plot co-exist in harmony. Things happen – simultaneous plotlines, interactions of characters on many levels, developments in the village – and little Frances notes it all, with just enough naivety to be convincing, with just enough intuition to paint the whole picture. A door which had been closed before was now partly open, and it was definitely from there that the breathing came. We stood still, not daring to pass it, then we moved forward very slowly and quietly and, although we were so afraid, we couldn't help looking through the open door as we passed. There was something very red and white inside – most likely a hassock, I thought, or even a huge cherry pie. Then we saw it was the General's head lying there by the door, and one eye was open and the other shut. The open eye saw us and he sort of gurgled and slightly moved one freckled old hand. We thought he was lying on the floor like that to frighten us; perhaps he was suddenly going to grab one of our legs. 'Do you think he's having a fit, or is it just a frightening game?' I asked Esme, but she thought he was drunk and might at any moment attack us, so we left him there and ran out into the rain.In a novel which takes its name from a set of chairs made from human skin, and given the two passages I've quoted, you might expect a general tone of grotesqueness which is actually missing here – or at least, it's there, but it's subtle, underlying an almost pastoral rendering of an ever-so-slightly-disadvantaged childhood that brings to mind Witold Gombrowicz's stated aim of 'smuggling contraband' inside of traditional forms. But Comyns is subtler than Gombrowicz, and it's hard to tell what her aim might be, aside from to entertain, to provoke, to mesmerise, which is something she does slowly but surely over the course of her patiently-unfolding narrative. According to the introduction Barbara Comyns was a painter, and she has the painter's sense of the visual and timeless, yet with just enough of the novelist's concern with events to make of her novel more than a word-painting. I walked in the night with my lantern, and disturbed owls cried as they hunted for field-mice. I did not mind them; it was the bats I was scared of as they swooped and flickered around me, squeaking in the dark. The earth was still hard with frost and sometimes long brambles entwined themselves in my skirt and I had to put the lantern down while I freed myself. Once I stumbled and the lamp went out and I couldn't manage the matches with my gloved hands. The complete darkness made me afraid and I remembered the lepers and imagined they were peering through the hedges at me. When at last I got the lamp burning again, I warmed my hand against the glass and, to steady myself, read the joke on the back of the matchbox and tried to laugh. I try not to get too excited when I'm reading a new author – try not to expect too much before at least the halfway mark in a novel I have never heard of before. But at this point I'm hopeful Barbara Comyns is that rarest thing – a fluke discovery who will grow to be a much-loved familiar. So far, she hasn't fumbled once. So far, she embodies perfectly the temperament I feel most love for in an artist: the quiet striving after the magical without any of the florid gestures of the crowd-pleasing magician. So far, The Skin Chairs is as natural and right-seeming a masterpiece as I've read in months. And coming so soon on the heels of Natsume Soseki's The Gate (my second reading of an all-time favourite), that's quite a feat. Cristoph Meckel, Willa Cather, Felisberto Hernandez – so far, I'd put Comyns up there with all of them. Now let's hope I haven't spoken too soon. Whatever the outcome, this is some kind of a discovery. I'll update this when I've finished and let you know how it went.A few weeks later: A re-evaluation, because the book has not stayed with me quite as much as I had hoped, because true to form I was slightly too impressed by this discovery – so rare – from out of left field. Also I neglected to mention the comedy. It's dark, it's real, it's ever so slightly gothic, but there's a strain of off-the-wall humour that makes the mix unique. For me, it grew wings early, took off and sometimes soared, but never quite reached the destination that would have made it transcendental. Still, the flight was something. Maybe not a masterpiece, but the work of a master, potentially, for sure.

  • Rod
    2019-04-24 00:47

    Probably my favorite Comyns, right up there with Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. This hits the Comyns sweet spot for me: the young, naive narrator living in an idyllic country town, with a large family who often live beyond their means; prickly relations headed by a domineering female; eccentric, eccentric friends and neighbors; the horrors and traumas of childhood leavened by humor. I had been in a rather depressing reading slump for a while, having recently moved to a new house, and I didn't have access to many of my books because they were all packed up, and even after unpacking them, I was either too busy unpacking or too worn out from unpacking to read for very long without falling asleep. Barbara Comyns brought me out of it. First I read The Vet's Daughter; although I enjoyed it a great deal, I found it a little too bleak, a little too harsh, and lacking Comyn's usual sly, subtle humor. It broke the slump, however, and left me hungry for more Comyns. The Skin Chairs is where it's at, it's the bee's knees. Just what I needed, right book, right time.

  • Nate D
    2019-05-10 00:48

    Comyns continues to be a pleasure, with so many amazing turns of phrase and strange but perfect juxtapositions between mundane and morbid on every page. It's all a little unsettling, but rings true to the vague menaces and unreliable adults bound to haunt children everywhere. All the same, I feel like this wasn't quite up to the focus and intensity of her earlier novels of the 50s, perhaps trading in creepy fairy-tale specifics for universality. As such, it may take slightly longer to get caught up, but it still casts a deep and lasting spell.

  • J.
    2019-05-21 05:49

    Such an onslaught of detail, such an incoming rush of sensory effects that it's difficult to know what to call this. A coming-of-age novel where the days stream by but the characters don't change-- a kaleidoscopic novel that keeps mostly to the same setting ... A character study, but one where nothing is revealed, in the unending flow of both triviality and entirety. Comyns is fascinated by the perspective of adolescence, but in the most adult way possible, a perspective that doesn't shortchange the insights of the childhood years. When her ten-year-old narrator doesn't quite get the picture, she herself understands that she probably isn't old enough yet, and seems to know instinctively there is much beneath the surface.Rather than single out useful emblems or motifs upon which to hinge the story, the author instead opts for full immersion, that Incoming Rush thing, where the doors are always wide open and the eyes and ears too. The symbolic presence of the Skin Chairs themselves is never parsed or paired with a plausible meaning. In the end they are a Duchampian set of forms, enigmatic figures on a chessboard.At that and much more we're left to wonder. And really, that is where you are, when you're ten years old, coping, wondering. No explanations, no regrets, a compelling read.

  • Brian
    2019-05-14 07:09

    A mid 20th century British bildungsroman following a young girl and her family for a couple of seasons of her life, dealing with all kinds of troubles, small and large. There's quite a bit of humor, and Comyns does a great job flushing out about a dozen or so characters in our narrator's orbit. The British class system plays large in the background, and there's the skin chair mcguffin (creating a lovely ending) but I'm not the best reader of Comyns, methinks.

  • Daisy
    2019-05-10 23:42

    You read this on tenterhooks; it's a weird mixture of cozy and uncomfortable, with the emphasis on uneasiness. It's got unforgettable characters (Aunt Lawrence, Vanda and Jane, Mrs. Alexander with her gold shoes and other proclivities) who drive the would-be simple story of a young girl from a poor, eccentric family who loves to draw, is kind to animals, and knows her botany.It surprised me that I was allowed more freedom than Ruby, who was grown up and wore her hair in a sad little bun.

  • Jed Mayer
    2019-04-30 08:01

    I am so grateful to have finally discovered this utterly unique, marvelously strange and insightful writer; though not quite as enticingly sinister as the incomparable "The Vet's Daughter," this is in many ways quite as moving, and abounds in visionary passages that perfectly capture the strangeness of childhood, and the general awfulness of the human race.

  • Ann-Marie
    2019-05-03 05:58

    Not that I've read a lot of Flannery O'Connor, but it occurred to me after finishing this book that Barbara Comyns might have something in common with her. (Kalen, care to comment?) I’ve read a few of Comyns’s books now (all thanks to Kalen), and I liked this one the best of all, perhaps because it was told from a child’s point of view and was a bit more lighthearted, even though there were frightening or sad parts. In all of her novels, her subject seems to be human suffering, and although they are often darkly funny, they can go to some very depressing and unfunny places. But this one charmed me. (Thanks again, Kalen!)

  • Kate
    2019-05-15 03:08

    This was a good, but not great, Barbara Comyns novel. It is narrated convincingly by a young girl who's family has fallen on hard times. It explores their journey as they come to terms with their newly reduced lifestyle, as well as the developments of her siblings. She befriends some eccentric and rather cruel characters in the village. The novel didn't have the same humor/horror that her other books, such as Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead or The Vet's Daughter did and was largely unmemorable.

  • Tyler
    2019-05-04 07:46

    "The room had the sickly smell of caged birds and spiteful women" - Barbara Comyns pars pro toto.

  • Kallie
    2019-05-04 04:06

    This is one of the best books I've ever read from a child's point of view, yet telling a story for adults, complete with dark portraits written by that child. Frances is a sensitive, curious, compassionate, adventurous spirit in spite of her fears and some unpleasant discoveries about adult behavior -- how snobby and irresponsible adults can be; and how horribly insensate (as exemplified by the skin chairs referenced in the title. She explores the landscape and gets to know people, even people she doesn't much like at first, and is fascinated by eccentricity. As an American from the U.S., I in turn found fascinating these close-up observations of life in an English village.

  • Gina
    2019-04-22 01:40

    Surreal magical realism; beautiful, dark and haunting

  • Paula
    2019-05-14 01:45

    A little more grounded in reality than Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, this novel about genteel country folk, told from the point of view of a bewildered young girl who is forced to stay with "horsey relations" after her father dies, has a meandering feel that values eccentric details over plot. I liked it, and plan to read more Barbara Comyns. Yay for weird British authors.

  • Flora
    2019-05-02 08:02

    3.5 stars really but I'm rounding up because it's Barbara Comyns and I love her. Much more 'straight' than her other novels but still tinged with strangeness and the weird obsessions of childhood. "Sisters by a River" and "Who was Changed and who was Dead" have yet to be beaten, however.

  • Louisa
    2019-05-08 07:00

    Helen Oyeyemi said: "I like the entire drama of whether the protagonist is going to be OK inside herself."