Back to books, and back to Barbara Comyns – she appears in the 50 Books with her excellent, surreal novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, and I previously read an autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, which is told through the childlike voice of a naive young wife and mother – and I couldn’t resist The Juniper Tree when I discovered that it was adapted from a tale from the Brothers Grimm. One of my pet interests is myths turned into domestic literature i.e. the fantastic transferred to the everyday, contained so that it plays out through human emotions rather than the mystical or extreme.
I didn’t know ‘The Juniper Tree’ (by Brothers Grimm) before I read The Juniper Tree (by Barbara Comyns… this is going to get confusing…) and I think it’s best to approach it that way. Reading about the Grimm’s tale on Wikipedia afterwards, I was stunned by how Comyns managed to work the tale into the novel, weaving aspects in subtly and artistically. I could appreciate this in retrospect, but if I’d known the tale beforehand then the plot would have held no secrets. Whether or not you know it, I urge you to seek out The Juniper Tree.
Bella, estranged from her mother and with illegitimate young daughter Tommy in tow (yes, daughter), takes up work in an antique store in Twickenham. In the first paragraph, she encounters a mysterious woman:
‘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. She turned and went into her house before I could offer to help.’
As the blurb writes, the first glimpse of Gertrude Forbes is at once fairytale and sinister. Gertrude and her husband, Bernard, befriend Bella – she becomes a regular visitor at their large house, complete with extensive garden and juniper tree. The Forbes’ long for a child; Bella longs for friends and love; Tommy longs for a family. Longings collide and events grow gracefully macabre.
Having read three novels by Comyns, I am astonished that they all come from the same pen – they are so different. The Juniper Tree doesn’t have the vulnerability of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, or the surreal humour or Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead; in their place is a haunting domesticity – everything calm on the surface, but an awareness throughout that the relationships between each character simmer with potential change and tragedy. The majority of the novel can be read as a simple domestic tale, until a twist which cannot be ignored towards the end, but the whole work is fraught with an intermingling of the fairytale and the sinister. The Brothers Grimm tale, read either beforehand or subsequently, brings out even more layers in The Juniper Tree. I don’t think there is any other novelist I’ve come across who writes so subtly the disturbing and the domestic, or whose oeuvre is so brilliantly varied. If that is not too bold a statement to make on the basis of three novels.