Sadie Stein, in her introduction to the novel, states:
Among Comyns devotees, The Juniper Tree is divisive.
Having read only one Comyns (The Vet’s Daughter) prior to The Juniper Tree, I can’t really compare and comment.
But I loved The Juniper Tree, so I can certainly hope that her other novels will be just as good or even better.
The Juniper Tree is Barbara Comyns’ retelling of the macabre fairy tale of the same name. But of course, Comyns provides her own twist on it.
The book is narrated in the first person by the central female protagonist, Bella Winter.
Here’s how it opens…
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.
In the subsequent pages, it will become clear that this woman is none other than Gertrude who will play a significant role in how Bella’s life shapes up.
Meanwhile, in the same chapter, we learn that Bella is on her way to a job interview. Little by little in the first few chapters itself, Bella’s past is revealed to us.
We learn of her mother’s indifference towards her in her childhood and the strained relationship that they continue to have even well into Bella’s adulthood.
Bella had been a relationship with Stephen, a ‘mean’ man especially when it comes to money. Due to an accident, which is Stephen’s fault, Bella has a scar on her face, something which she is conscious of all the time and which disconcerts her greatly. Not surprisingly, the relationship ends.
Bella carries on. As she adapts to her new surroundings as a single woman again, in one of the parties, she ends up having a one night stand with a coloured man whose name she can’t recall. Bella subsequently becomes pregnant and her daughter is born whom she names Tommy or Marlinchen.
That’s her past.
In the present, Bella manages to find work in an antiques shop and also set up residence there with her daughter. Bella is good at her job, she loves her new abode. And after her struggles of the past, finally she appears to have found her peace and more importantly her independence.
Bella seems to be happy. And yet she is still beset by feelings of loneliness.
All of these developments take place fairly early, so you know that there is more to come.
Meanwhile, as I pointed out earlier, Bella and Gertrude Forbes (the beautiful young woman she comes acorss in the opening paragraph) strike up a friendship. The Forbes are wealthy with a comfortable home and gradually Bella becomes a regular part of their life.
There was a great feeling of love and happiness in the house, and a feeling of goodness too.
As I’d thought, Gertrude was of German origin but Bernard was English. Both were tall and very handsome, Gertrude really beautiful with a kind of radiance about her.
Gertrude’s husband Bernard takes to ‘improving’ Bella by trying to teach her things.
He lent me books on subjects I’d hardly been interested in before, botany for instance, and architecture. He seemed to enjoy stretching my rather ignorant mind.
This where things surely and steadily start getting ominous.
I won’t point out what happens, but a development takes place putting Bella in a position where she has to make a decision.
Those sections of the novel are riveting and unsettling all at once.
Comyns’ storytelling here is brilliant. The prose feels like a fairytale and the tone is light and delicate deceptively and cleverly blunting the impact of Bella’s hardships earlier on and the events that are about to unfold later. She superbly lulls the reader into a false sense of security and yet with a niggling thought that something might happen to threaten this. The elements of dread and unease that are sprinkled earlier on only gain intensity as the novel progresses.
Bella herself is a wonderful creation. She is frank and honest so as a reader you can’t help but feel for her. Her independence is her strength as she finds her vocation in selling antiques. She also manages to stand up to her mother, who is intolerant of Bella’s daughter earlier on because of her mixed race. But Bella is also naïve at least in the way she ingratiates herself with the Forbes.
The Juniper Tree was published in the 1980s. But it confronts and highlights the eternal issues and struggles that women have to grapple with even today – of trying to retain a sense of independence, and finding the balance between work and family.
I loved The Juniper Tree and Barbara Comyns has quickly turned out to be a writer I want to read more of. I had immensely liked the strangeness of The Vet’s Daughter when I read it some years ago. Next on the list are Who Was Changed, and Who Was Dead and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – both deliciously named titles, that have generally received great reviews.