THE JUNIPER TREE
By Barbara Comyns
177 pp. New York Review Books. Paper, $14.95.
“I have few happy memories of my mother,” the narrator tells us early on in “The Juniper Tree,” this reimagining of a famously savage Grimm fairy tale. “Not that she hurt me physically, the hurt was mental.” As Barbara Comyns’s novel unfolds, the hurt that mothers inflict and the hurt that mothers suffer keep piercing through the ordinary fabric of daily life, and some of the wounds (though not all of them) are mental.
Comyns, a British writer who died in 1992, was no self-declared feminist, yet she takes up here the voice of one of the most wicked stepmothers in the fairy tale canon, and not only understands her, but makes her the sympathetic heart of the story. This is not easy. Just listen to the closing song of the Grimms’ version, which became Comyns’s epigraph: “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.” Comyns’s hapless heroine’s vicissitudes follow the original story closely as she updates and rationalizes the extreme, weird sequence of murder and revenge.
The original “Juniper Tree” first appeared in 1812, in the first edition of “Children’s and Household Tales.” Unlike many stories the Brothers Grimm collected from oral sources, this one was written and sent to them by the German Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge, who specialized in capturing the wild energy of children’s imaginations. He conjured dreamlike, metaphysical fairy realms, as well as portrayed real-life subjects as radiant beings. With “The Juniper Tree,” he passed on a literary masterpiece of gory fantasy, level and cool and laconic, structured with musical repetition and told with a masterly deadpan command of the horrible.
Comyns steps with intense identification into the persona of a woman who, in the Grimms’ telling, decapitates her stepson by dropping the lid of a trunk on his head in a moment of rage and then cooks him in a stew. In Comyns’s version, she is called, with a touch of ominousness, Bella Winters. Her face is badly scarred on the left side, after a car accident — with Comyns’s perfectly pitched insight into male monstrosity, she recounts how Bella’s lover Stephen, who was at the wheel, blamed her, though she was fast asleep at the time, for distracting him. Soon after this, Bella has a baby. When she first sees the little girl, she thinks there must have been a mistake, since she barely remembers the black lover in a crimson velvet jacket whom she slept with one night after a party when she was on the rebound from Stephen. But she soon grows to love her biracial daughter, gives her the nickname Tommy, and they eke out their survival in a dreary bed-sit infested with cockroaches, heated only by puny gas fires that require feeding with coins, of which Bella never has enough. She is helped by “illegal immigrants” like the “girl from the Canaries” who “unbuttoned her blouse and gave me one of the steaks that were plastered there. … They were always offering to babysit, only I had nowhere to go while they sat.”
The original story has a macabre, mythic grandeur and shares motifs with the tale of Medea, who murders her children, and of Philomela, who serves up her sister Procne’s son to his father as revenge for his raping her. These towering, complex, passionate protagonists appeal ever more strongly to women artists and writers — because they expose the nexus of constraints that surrounds women and drives them to extreme acts of violence. The plot of “The Juniper Tree” touches blazing questions about stepfamilies, children’s survival, parental damage, male charisma and female surrender.
Comyns ventures intrepidly into this territory. Her method is not to estrange reality, but to render weirdness part of the everyday: The novel calls to mind a bolt of richly textured fabric that, when the light falls on it one way, looks perfectly bright and ordinary, but when it falls another way, reveals deep rifts and wrinkles, through which rise vivid glimpses of off-kilter disturbance. In a brief and perceptive introduction, Sadie Stein describes Comyns’s style as “unsentimental magical realism” that is “uncanny yet matter-of-fact, spooky yet gentle.”
Comyns was born in 1909 into what sounds like improvident gentry; over the years, she scrabbled for her living in many different trades alongside her writing — she worked as a cook in a country house during World War II, dealt in and restored antiques, including vintage cars, and thought of herself primarily as a visual artist. After a first, calamitous marriage to another artist (wonderfully captured in her zany, bittersweet 1950 novel, “Our Spoons Came From Woolworths”), Graham Greene, an early supporter of her work, introduced her to Richard Strettell Comyns Carr, a friend and colleague of Kim Philby’s. (Carr lost his post when Philby was discovered to be a spy.)