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The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper Tree (1985)

by Barbara Comyns

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
Comyns’ The juniper tree is a novel based loosely on the Grimm fairy tale of the same name. The main character, Bella, is a single mother to a mixed-race daughter. She finds a new job running an antiques boutique and becomes friends with a nearby wealthy family whose husband decides she needs an education in literature, art, and theatre; the wife, Gertrude, becomes a close friend. Their mansion’s garden becomes a park that Bella and her daughter frequent. Then there’s her mother, who is a severe narcissist, though Bella is rather good at enforcing No Contact -- the mother doesn’t even know about Bella’s daughter.

As the book develops, the story flows along nicely, avoiding major speed bumps. Gradually, though, a few details start feeling slightly off: there’s thieving magpies in the garden; the narcissist mother turns up for semi-regular visits and turns out to be horribly racist as well; her ex-boyfriend wants to impress her with his new conquest. Pushing in from beyond Bella’s new idyllic life are ominous reminders that the Outside World is cruel and self-serving, though they remain under the surface; their pressure is subtle. .

It was nice to read a book centring on the stepmother character, and a sympathetic portrayal at that. Other than that this book was just plain well done. It was a gentle, languid read, and, like a fairytale, feels largely untethered to the decade in which it is actually set (the 1980s) -- large sections of the books it could have been set in pre-War London, too, or even the 1800s. If I have any point of criticism it is that the events in the plot were kept a little too much in the middle distance -- again, like in a fairy tale: sometimes it feels more like we’re being told about a series of events rather than seeing them happen through the main character, particularly as the story nears its conclusion.

But on the whole this book was a quiet, understatedly nasty read. Not quite character-driven enough, but the buildup and the gentle flavour of the narrative more than make up for that. ( )
2 vote Petroglyph | May 2, 2019 |
I seem to be in the minority of reviewers here, not having enjoyed this book at all. I found the story rather boring, the writing to be overly descriptive and tedious, and none of the characters were likable at all. The main character seemed to have some promise, but ended up being a doormat after all. I get that this is based on a fairy tale, but I just found it awful throughout. ( )
  digitalmaven | Sep 16, 2018 |
Bella, a single mother who runs an antique shop and lives above the shop with her mixed-race daughter Marlen, has a chance encounter with Gertrude and Bernard Forbes, a childless wealthy couple who are longing for a child of their own. A close friendship develop, and soon Bella and Marlen are spending every weekend at the Forbes' estate. I won't say much about the rest of the plot, but the story closely follows the arc of the fairy tale.

Once again, Comyns details the events of ordinary day to day life, and yet there's something magical or unreal lurking beneath. One critic described it as the "unsettling union of matter-of-fact description and random, inexplicable plot." This is one of Comyns' later novels, and her skill and growth as a writer are evident. Highly recommended.

4 stars ( )
  arubabookwoman | Apr 23, 2018 |
Barbara Comyns is a fascinating writer; she doesn’t always follow the usual conventions of fiction writing – and for that alone I could love her.

The Juniper Tree is one of her later novels – the setting, the London of the 1980s – albeit the 1980s viewed by Comyns. The 80s of Comyns’ fiction is fairy-tale like – everything exists somewhere outside the usual realms of time and space. There is an odd timelessness to much of The Juniper Tree, the modern world is present glimpsed through piles of dusty antique furniture and ageing knick-knacks of a little antique shop. Comyns is not unlike Angela Carter, their fiction is often unexpected, there is darkness, magic, their worlds seem very slightly out of kilter while being entirely recognisable. Having said that, Comyns is absolutely and entirely herself – and the more of her books I read the more I want to read, re-read and go on reading. I absolutely love her books. She is a strange little genius. I have a book token left over from Christmas still to spend, more Comyns perhaps?

Comyns’ novel The Juniper Tree is based on a Grimm’s fairy-tale of the same name.

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.

Bella Winter; homeless, jobless, a single mother to a biracial toddler, Marline, is in great need of a break. She hasn’t spoken to her indifferent mother in a while – she doesn’t even know she is a grandmother. Bella’s once pretty face has been disfigured in a car accident and she is very conscious of the scar – but Bella has a determination to carry on, to carve out an existence for herself and her child. It isn’t long before Bella has found herself the perfect little life – a job which she is good at, and a home that comes with it. Bella is employed to run a little antiques shop in Twickenham, her daughter installed in a small municipal nursery nearby. Like many other Comyns’ characters Bella didn’t have a happy childhood, growing up in Kilburn, with a mother who blamed her for her father’s disappearance. The shop owner Mary, is soon a good friend, and other new friends soon follow, becoming more family like than anything Bella has known.

“It was a small, impersonal, Kilburn house with stained glass let into the front door and clinkers in the garden. It was furnished with shabby hire-purchase furniture, fully paid for and now almost worn out. The sofa was made of imitation brown leather and when it was hot it stuck to our bottoms, and the dining-room chairs were the same. The general colour scheme was brown, dark green and browny-gold. The only thing that appealed to me in the house was a French gilt clock which had belonged to my mother’s French grandfather. It gently ticked away the hours on the ugly sitting-room mantelshelf. Sometimes it stopped at eight o’clock, but not often or mother would have thrown it out. There was Robinson Crusoe sitting under a palm tree and Man Friday ministering to him and there may have been a sunshade although it seems unlikely. I think it was this clock that started my interest in antiques.”

Bella meets Gertrude and Bernard Forbes, a well-off couple with a large house and an idyllic garden. Bella is drawn into the world of the Forbes’ spending more and more time with Gertrude under the juniper tree in her garden. Gertrude conceives the child that has so long eluded her, and a long, lazy waiting time is spent with Gertrude, Bella and little Marline (Marlinchen to Gertrude – called Tommy by Bella) talking, playing, taking tea and watching the magpies that nest in the juniper tree. Bella spends her week days in the shop, finding she has a real gift for spotting good items when they come in, her evenings are spent cosy and comfortable with her adored little daughter in the rooms above the shop. Weekends are spent with the Forbes – where as Gertrude’s pregnancy progresses Bella becomes more and more of a housekeeper as well as a friend.
In this relationship Bella is largely passive – she respects the opinions of her new friends – eventually contacting her mother as Bernard thinks she should. There is a slight feeling that there is an inequality between Bella and the Forbes, they the possessors of money, property and prestige, Bella has little by comparison and is grateful to be granted their friendship. There’s a creeping sense of dread beneath the story of Bella and her lovely life in the antiques shop – right from the opening pages, when Bella first sees Gertrude in the snow. There is an unreality to it, a dreamlike quality that the reader can never fully shake off.

“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 really don’t want to talk much more about the actual plot – for risk of spoiling it. (There is so much I want to talk about, but I mustn’t). Comyns really lulls the reader into a false sense of security, for much of the novel things move along pretty smoothly. The novel is very readable, and while the reader might have a vague sense of disquiet about the relationship that has developed between Bella and the Forbes, we are jolted out of our security by an event – which some readers may hate Comyns for.

Part of Comyn’s brilliance (and oddness) for me is in the way she deals with this event and the way the characters act after it. There is even the suggestion of redemption, of a possible future – the terrible thing remains terrible – can never be anything but terrible – and indeed remains with the reader long after – but it isn’t the end of the book, and it isn’t the end for everyone involved either. In this perhaps Comyns is saying something about happy endings, and who gets one and who doesn’t – here again, we certainly can’t accuse Comyns of being conventional.

The Juniper Tree, is a multi-layered novel, beautifully and compellingly told. There is a deceptive simplicity to the telling of this utterly unforgettable book – which I was sorry to finish, it is completely unique. It’s the kind of book I want to thrust into the hand of all my friends – while being a little bit afraid they might stop speaking to me if I did. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Apr 2, 2018 |
I liked this novel and thought it had a promising beginning, but I kind of got bored in the middle, the ending was not to my liking. ( )
1 vote Judy_Ryfinski | Jan 20, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Comynsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Drabble, MargaretForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stein, SadieIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Adapted from a children's fairy story of the same name by the Brothers Grimm, which is far too macabre for adult reading.
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.
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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.
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"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.' Bella's first glimpse of Gertrude Forbes is at once fairytale and sinister, and so the pattern is set for their future friendship. Both women are lonely in their different ways - Gertrude wealthy yet seemingly barren; Bella poor, scarred, the mother of an illegitimate child. As the snow thaws 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.
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"Bella Winter is homeless and jobless. The mother of a toddler by a man whose name she didn't quite catch, her once pretty face is now marred by a scar from a car accident. She's recently disentangled herself from a selfish and indifferent boyfriend and a cruel and indifferent mother. But she shares a quality common to Barbara Comyns's heroines, a bracingly unsentimental ability to carry on. It's not long before Bella has found not only a job but a vocation, not only a place to live but a home and a makeshift family. As Comyns's novel progresses, the story echoes and inverts the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale The Juniper Tree. Will Bella's hard-won restoration to life and love come at the cost of others' happiness?"--… (more)

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