JANUARY 23, 2018
BARBARA COMYNS IS a good novelist to read when the world stops making sense. Every one of her 11 slim novels, published in Britain between 1947 and 1989, depicts dogged, even ludicrous endurance in the face of impossible things. In one of her early works, a teenage girl reacts to her father’s threats of physical violence by gaining the power to levitate. Another novel shows the heroine confronting both childbirth in a carceral 1930s public hospital and the oddly tangible ghost of her dead mother. It doesn’t matter if the horrors on the page are unearthly or brutally real, Comyns’s narrators render them all strangely prosaic — awful, but also simply part of the business of living.
Nowhere is this truer than in The Juniper Tree, first published in 1985 near the end of Comyns’s long writing career (she died in 1992) and now available in reissue from NYRB Classics. Loosely based on one of the more macabre Brothers Grimm fairy tales, The Juniper Tree turns the supernatural into the commonplace. Critic Sadie Stein, who introduces the new edition, aptly calls Comyns’s style “unsentimental magic realism,” a designation that gets at the novel’s unsettling union of matter-of-fact description and random, inexplicable plot. Jettisoning the fairy tale’s moral absolutism while retaining its sense of lurking horror, Comyns frames evil as just another way of describing everything that’s beyond our control.
The Juniper Tree gestures toward realism, but its setting and characters feel weirdly out-of-time. Despite living in an occasionally recognizable late-1970s London, the fancifully named protagonist, Bella Winter, has a life that is equal parts naturalism, soap opera, and Dickensian fable. Through her retrospective narration, we learn that Bella is a young single mother of a biracial daughter conceived from a one-night stand. Saddled with a facial scar from a car crash and unwelcome in her mother’s house, Bella is barely scraping by. The novel picks up just as our heroine lands an ideal job at an antique shop, a lucky turn that’s mysteriously linked to the start of a friendship with a wealthy and cultured couple, Bernard and Gertrude Forbes. The pair takes a proprietary interest in Bella and her daughter, cultivating Bella’s taste and doting on the child. Bella thrives under their kindness, though Bernard comes across as overly paternalistic, often forcibly pulling Bella’s hand from her scar when, in embarrassed moments, she attempts to cover it. Only when Gertrude gives birth to her own child do things start to go off the rails, and soon the fairy-tale plot glimpsed in the novel’s first pages churns inexorably toward calamity.
Knowing the Brothers Grimm story makes the experience of reading The Juniper Tree’s early chapters especially unsettling. The original tale is so fantastical and monstrous even the breadcrumbs Comyns sprinkles throughout her own story inspire queasy disbelief. The basics of its confounding plot are these: a rich man and his beautiful wife long for a child. The wife cuts herself while peeling an apple on a winter day and wishes for a son as red as her blood and as white as the snow. Her wish comes true, but she dies of happiness as soon as she sees her child. The man remarries and has a daughter, but his second wife jealously hates her stepson. She kills the boy and cooks the body into a stew, feeding it to the boy’s father, who consumes it with relish. The kind daughter collects her brother’s bones and buries them under a juniper tree, which sprouts a beautiful bird that sings a melodious but gloomy song: “My mother, she killed me, / my father he ate me.” The bird ultimately kills the stepmother, who dies in a mass of flame. The boy emerges from the fire alive and the story ends with him, his half-sister, and his father happily sitting down to a family meal.
If all this seems ominous, it’s doubly so once we realize that Bella plays the stepmother role. But The Juniper Tree is neither a horror story nor a work of literary redemption; Comyns’s novel isn’t playing Wide Sargasso Sea to a Brothers Grimm Jane Eyre. It’s often hard, in fact, to figure out what the novel wants of its adaptation. Bella’s daughter shares a name, Marlinchen, with the little girl in the Grimm story, and Gertrude is oddly drawn to a juniper tree in her garden. Such likenesses initially seem portentous yet become oddly inert — they’re omens that end up as nothing more than Easter eggs. Still, this duality serves a purpose. By flattening the difference between reality and fairy tale, The Juniper Tree doesn’t deflate the significance of signs and auguries so much as make the presence of such immanent meaning unremarkable. Everything holds mysterious potential; anything might be a charm or a curse.
That the novel’s freeform adaptation succeeds is largely because of the naïf but hardy voice of its narrator and heroine. Like all Comyns’s narrating protagonists, Bella displays an ingenuousness that is double-edged, making her commentary at once guileless and incisive. Her frank perspective neutralizes the strangeness of The Juniper Tree’s many inexplicable circumstances, blurring the difference between the exceptional and the banal. Nowhere is this more the case than in the novel’s disorienting opening paragraph:
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 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. She turned and went into her house before I could offer to help. I didn’t like to knock on her door. It was a very private-looking one, painted bottle-green and with heavy brass fittings […] I thought I saw a dim figure pass by one of the windows and I hurriedly turned away and walked further up the hill towards the park gates, forgetting that I’d come to Richmond in search of work …
Disconcertingly abrupt, this beginning isn’t so much en medias res as wholly unmoored. One moment we’re at Richmond station, concrete and mundane, the next we’re unaccountably watching a statuesque woman peel fruit in the snow. There’s no indication of who is speaking, yet that opening “quite,” unselfconscious and conversational, suggests that we’re already in the midst of a long, intimate conversation with a good friend. Each detail and action feels opaquely meaningful, though it’s not clear if the speaker, already on good terms with us, is of this world or is as mystified by it as we are. In the narrator’s simple description, the folktale fragments scattered throughout the passage are less sinister than simply suggestive, part of an everyday world infused with latent enchantment.
Soon, though, Bella will be admitted through that “private-looking” door, and the inscrutable beauty in the snow will become a friend. The novel attends not only to the engrained potential of the everyday, but also to the private lives of women, as if Comyns is drawing an analogy between our tendency to diminish or ignore the significance of both. For Bella, passing through the “bottle-green” entryway and learning the identities of the “dim figure[s]” inside uncovers not a fantasy world, but the interiority of a woman whom, pages earlier, seemed as much a symbol as a person.
This interest in women’s inner lives extends even to minor characters Bella meets in passing. In later chapters, for instance, she frequently digresses on the many nannies and cooks who run the Forbes household. They’re old and young, British and foreign, all looking for a way to support themselves. An ad Bernard places for a “lady cook-housekeeper” yields responses from solitary women, young and old, many with children. Bella tells us that she favors “a childless divorcee of thirty-one, an out-of-work bookseller who wrote an excellent letter and didn’t feel sorry for herself like most of the applicants.” We never meet the brave ex-bookseller, but we do see the woman who gets the job. The aging Joan Webb has a tale of her own: unmarried and penniless, she forewent marriage and school to stay home and care for her sick mother. All she really knows how to do is nurse elderly invalids, whom she placidly regards as “dears except they [are] inclined to die.” Bella deems Joan’s history “not tragic, but really sad. Her old ladies dying one by one, three lost in four years, and her cooking based on the needs of the impoverished and elderly.” In the eyes of those who don’t bother to know her (namely Bernard), Joan is a joke, a doddering spinster who considers pink blancmange the height of culinary sophistication. Revealed by Bella, however, Joan becomes a kindred soul — another steely innocent, buffeted but persevering.
What Bella says of Joan’s life — it is sad but not tragic — could go for Bella too. Every time the novel pushes her toward some extreme, whether of misfortune or of joy, she immediately tempers its effects, reacting with steadfast passivity or practical equanimity. Life does give her something like tragedy, but she refuses to see it as such, transmuting the catastrophic into something merely unfortunate through the sheer force of her artless telling. Such strange imperviousness is also typical of the heroes in fairy tales. Their confrontations with magic, fate, and wickedness are valiant, yes, but also matter-of-fact. Such characters never navel-gaze or look for explanations — they only deal with what comes. The Juniper Tree picks and chooses from its source material, but it is faithful in its depiction of this improbable pragmatism.
That’s not to say there aren’t consequences to such unreflective resolve. Bella leaves disturbing lacunae in her story, and at times her straightforwardness deflects the reader’s interest — it’s the narrative equivalent of “nothing to see here.” Perhaps Comyns believes these are the strategies an off-kilter world demands. Like the bird in the fairy tale, Bella reveals herself but remains inexplicable. Her narration too is an assertion of agency in the face of unlikely circumstances, though it never gains her anything like power. If, in the Brothers Grimm, telling your tale is a means of retribution and reclamation, in Comyns’s Juniper Tree the telling has to serve as an end in itself. It may not get you control, but it can at least help you begin to make sense of things. Sometimes that’s enough.