The Juniper Tree has been adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy story of the same name of which, author Barbara Comyns writes, ‘is far too macabre for adult reading’. The novel, which was first published in 1985, was Comyns’ first novel for eighteen years. It has been deemed ‘very cunningly continued indeed… [it] could hardly be more satisfactorily accomplished’ by the Times Literary Supplement.
Before launching into my review, I have chosen to include the original rhyme from the Brothers Grimm story to give one a feel for the darkness of the tale:
“My mother she killed me,
My father he ate me,
My sister, little Marlinchen,
Gathered together my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird I am.”
‘The Juniper Tree’ is one of my favourite fairytales, and whilst I enjoy reading retellings of such familiar stories, I find that they can often be quite predictable in places. Not so here. Protagonist Bella Winter, single mother to an illegitimate young girl named Marline, is soon woven into the story of German woman Gertrude Forbes. Bella’s first glimpse of Gertrude is ‘at once fairytale and sinister, and so the pattern is set for their future friendship… As the snows thaw and different configurations emerge, so Bella, Gertrude and her husband Bernard take on the roles of a macabre, magical story which will conclude on the other side of madness.’
The novel opens with Bella’s lilting voice, and begins to set the recurring contrasts of beauty and darkness which can be found throughout the novel: ‘Quite soon after I left Richmond Station I turned into a quiet street where the snow was almost undisturbed and, climbing higher, I came to a road that appeared to be deserted. Then I noticed a beautiful fair woman standing in the courtyard outside her house like a statue, standing there so still. As I drew nearer I saw that her hands were moving. She was paring an apple out there in the snow and as I passed, looking at her out of the sides of my eyes, the knife slipped, and suddenly there was blood on the snow.’
When Bella, who is looking for work and a fresh start, finds a position in an antiques shop in Twickenham, she becomes friendly with Gertrude, whom she soon discovers is the woman she viewed in the snow. In one of the most obvious echoes of the original story, Gertrude begins to call Bella’s daughter Marlinchen. A while later, after a firm but quite unusual friendship has been formed, ‘Gertrude conceives the child which has long eluded her, and the spell breaks into foreboding, menace and madness.’
This menace, and sense that something is not quite right, is captured perfectly. Just before Gertrude gives birth, the following occurs: ‘We had our last picnic under the juniper tree, Gertrude ignoring the food I’d arranged on the table but almost greedily gulping down the last of the juniper berries that grew on the shady side of the tree – the berries so blue and poisonous-looking, and smelling strange too. I’d seen her do this before; but this time she was snatching at the fruit with her long white hands and putting several in her mouth at once, and her lips became stained and her dress all spattered with the needle-leaves.’ Comyns also writes wonderfully about the nature of change, not just in regard to Gertrude’s body in pregnancy, but in the natural world too.
To those who have read any of Comyns’ work in the past, it goes without saying that she writes wonderfully. An immediate feel is given for the characters, and the story has been vividly transposed to its English setting of the 1980s. Comyns’ retelling is haunting, particularly as it reaches its climax. The voice here, whilst manifested through the character of Bella, is distinctively Comyns’ own.
There are twists here which it would be unfair to reveal; this is a novel far better digested with no preconceptions or foreknowledge of Comyns’ adaptations. The Juniper Tree is a highly accomplished standalone novel, but knowledge of the original fairytale seems necessary in order to better appreciate Comyns’ clever interpretation. One can pinpoint what might happen at times if familiar with the original, but there are still some surprises along the way. Dark and beguiling, The Juniper Tree is a masterful novel which I highly recommend.