The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! by John Cowper Powys

I hate to have to confess this, but there are books on my TBR which have been there for literally decades… And in many cases, I really don’t want to get rid of them because I’ve come across absolute gems when I’ve finally got round to reading some of those pending books. A case in point is “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir, which I bought in the 1980s and finally read in the 2000s: it turned out to be a most wonderful book, which I love and would never part with. Hence, I suppose, my difficulty in getting rid of the things… ;D

Anyway, one particularly large pile is my collection of John Cowper Powys books – here they are:

The pile of Powys books is so big it threatens to eclipse Christmas… ;D

Yes, it’s a very large pile of very chunky books. Yes, I have two copies of “Wolf Solent” (the most recent edition came home with me because of the larger type). Yes, the little red book on top is his monograph about Dostoevsky. Yes, I really *should* get on with reading one of these books soon (I did get well into “Wolf Solent ” some years ago, pre-blog, but got distracted). I’m afraid I have to admit that, in typical fashion, I *have* read a John Cowper Powys book recently, but it wasn’t any of these. Instead, I spent some very happy book time with this lovely edition of an early and obscure and hard-to-get story by Powys: “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!“, which has just been reissued by Michael Walmer – and what a treat it turned out to be!

Loving the cover of this edition! ๐Ÿ˜€

“Owl…” was first published in 1930 in a limited edition of 250 copies (and I think it’s been quite hard to get hold of since). It’s a short, quirky and extremely individual story; and bearing in mind it was published a year after “Wolf..” it’s probably not what his readers might have been expecting. The story is set in a small flat in 1920s New York, a place which is occupied by an old couple; retired circus performers, they live in fear of “the Authories” who seem determined to put them in a home. However, the old couple are not the only inhabitants of the flat; there are a number of inanimate objects who appear to have an existence, from a wise stuffed owl through an amorous china duck, a rude glass fish, some Eastern Gods, an emotionally charged doll and a crumbling wooden horse. All of these objects have their own opinions on life, the universe and everything, and are happy to voice them to each other. However, there is another layer of occupation which involves a pair of partially created characters from an unfinished novel of a long-gone tenant, and the filmy ghost of the kind old lady who lived in the flat before the old couple arrived.

They were not elves, or ghosts, or elementals, these Two Beings. They were not sylphs or salamanders or undines. That they should have existed in the Known World at all only proved that the philosophy of the Owl was correct when he made it clear to the Duck by irrefutable logic that at every known point in space thousands of unknown dimensions meet and overlap.

All of these different beings maintain a fragile co-existence on their different planes; however, the Authorities are imminent and the objects are incapable of preventing cataclysmic change. Is there anyone amongst them who can save the old couple from the horrors of a home?

The plot really does sound outlandish, but it actually is quite brilliant, and in 60 pages Powys manages to pack in humour, pathos and moments of real emotion. The writing is quirky and if you haven’t got the turn of mind which can accept the unlikely or impossible you may find the oddness a bridge too far. I, however, absolutely loved it; I was utterly gripped, whether listening to the objects debating their philosophies or sympathising with the poor doll’s desire for romance or empathising with the couple’s desire to simply be left along. It’s a fantastic tale, yes, but has roots in something deeper; it considers existence in all its different forms, concluding I think that people should be left alone to resolve their own lives.

But in the great clanging, marbly, brassy City, littered with sordid lives, strewn with wind-tost debris and bitter dust, exhaling mephitic stenches and corpse-chills, one resource, one issue, one last escape is leftโ€ฆ

The end solution is signalled fairly early on, and is desperately moving; the book ends on a slight note of ambiguity, which is entirely suitable; and as soon as I’d finished reading I felt like going back and reading again to see if I’d missed any nuances. It’s unusual, perhaps, for such a short and idiosyncratic work to have such an effect; but “Owl…” really got under my skin, and as I’d finished it during my lunch-hour I felt completely unsuited for work for the rest of the day!

Even the inside is pretty!

Mike Walmer’s Zephyr imprint is a series of classic short works in hardback and I reviewed the first, by Gautier, back in 2017 (I have the second waiting to be read!) I think they’re an excellent collection so far, works that really deserve to be available, and there’s an added bonus in that they’re also very pretty! I absolutely loved “The Owl, The Duck and – Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe!”, and you never know – this might spur me on to actually *read* some of those Powys chunksters lurking on Mount TBR! ๐Ÿ˜€

(Review copy kind provided by Mike Walmer, for which many thanks!)

ETA: Helen has also read and loved this book, so do pop over to see her thoughts. We agree it’s a fab book to read but possibly difficult to write about without spoilers! ๐Ÿ˜€