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 … Comyns’s prose is vivid and charmingly hurried … 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.
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 … 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 … Comyns’s own witchy way of looking at the world arises from her resourceful craft — her wordsmithery — which like a spell or a charm gives her fiction a unique flavor.
Loosely based on one of the more macabre Brothers Grimm fairy tales, The Juniper Tree turns the supernatural into the commonplace … The Juniper Tree gestures toward realism, but its setting and characters feel weirdly out-of-time. Despite living in an occasionally recognizable late-1970s London, the fancifully named protagonist, Bella Winter, has a life that is equal parts naturalism, soap opera, and Dickensian fable … That the novel’s freeform adaptation succeeds is largely because of the naïf but hardy voice of its narrator and heroine. Like all Comyns’s narrating protagonists, Bella displays an ingenuousness that is double-edged, making her commentary at once guileless and incisive. Her frank perspective neutralizes the strangeness of The Juniper Tree’s many inexplicable circumstances, blurring the difference between the exceptional and the banal.
To say that the narrative style is stream-of-consciousness isn’t quite right, but it’s close — there is an underlying structure, but developments occur with the same suddenness as thoughts … Comyns infuses her work with a sense of isolation and creeping dread. It’s easy to forget the book’s setting — whole chapters go by without technological markers, leaving you with the feeling that it could take place in the 1880s instead of the 1980s. This odd timelessness is a reminder of the book’s take on the Brothers Grimm, and coupled with Bella’s matter-of-fact narration of her hardships, heightens tension. Just as Comyns allows the narrative to veer in unexpected directions, she isn’t concerned with a typical narrative arc … Comyns’ prose can be difficult at times, despite its plainspoken manner. This style, though, suits Bella Winter, who has not had an easy life by any stretch of the imagination.