The Juniper Tree
by Barbara Comyns
NYRB Classics. 192pp. $14.95
From December 2017, Harper’s Magazine
When you consider the savagery of your run-of-the-mill fairy tale, our use of the term to connote “romance” or “idealization” smacks of nothing more than romance and idealization — a semantic circle of willful delusion. Take “The Juniper Tree,” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. A woman longs for a child, gets pregnant, gives birth to a son, and dies. The father remarries. One day, while the little boy has his head in a chest filled with apples, his stepmother slams down the lid, decapitating him. “Maybe I can get out of this,” she thinks. She ties the boy’s head back on with a scarf, convinces her daughter that she killed him, and cooks him into a stew. The truth comes out when a bird, channeling the boy’s spirit, crushes the stepmother with a millstone. It’s gruesome. But the story’s most grotesque feature is this mild sentence about the first wife: “Then she had a child as white as snow and as red as blood, and when she saw it, she was so happy that she died.”
Barbara Comyns’s novel, The Juniper Tree, a treasure from the 1980s reissued with an introduction by Sadie Stein, picks up the Grimm notion that an excess of maternal happiness can prove fatal. Then it goes a step further, suggesting that a mother’s happiness could very well depend on other people dying. Our narrator is Bella Winter, the white mother of a mixed-race daughter. (All that she recalls of the father, a one-night stand, is his red velvet jacket.) Bella is a dark-haired, glittering-eyed beauty with a scar on her left cheek from an automobile accident. She gets a job in an antiques shop and becomes enmeshed with a wealthy, art-collecting couple, Bernard and Gertrude. Bernard makes Bella his protégée and takes her to films and the theater. She spends long weekends at their estate, picnicking with Gertrude in the garden. Shortly after giving birth to a son, Gertrude dies “of a haemorrhage amongst other things.”
Comyns’s prose is vivid and charmingly hurried. “It was wonderful to be in the quiet square with the sleeping cars humped outside the houses like sleeping animals, elephants perhaps, one could almost hear them breathing.” (A lesser writer would have cut one “sleeping,” or worse, consulted the thesaurus.) In an ingenious modern revision, much of the novel is devoted to the period before Bella and Bernard marry. She enjoys working in the shop and is reluctant to give it up. She does everything possible to forestall the marriage, hiring nurses and nannies and cooks, but they’re all inadequate, and anyway, she’s smitten — “Besides almost worshipping Bernard I had this very strong physical love for him.” At last she accepts her fate. Comyns sprinkles bread crumbs for the careful reader:
Bella may be a jealous stepmother — Bernard proves unable to get over his dead wife — but she is hardly wicked. Even a good mother can make a terrible mistake. The Grimm story is about evil, revenge, and justice — an eye for an eye — but The Juniper Tree is about accidents, damage, and repair. Comyns gives her heroine and her daughter something shocking in the annals of fairy tales — a happy ending.
Christine Smallwood holds a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Her reviews and essays have been published in The New Yorker, Bookforum, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Harper’s Magazine, where she writes the monthly “New Books” column. Her fiction has been published in The Paris Review, n+1, and Vice.