“What’s your favorite fairy tale?” The question came at the tail end of a dinner party, in an era of my life when it wasn’t unusual to be asked, “What’s your spirit animal?” “Don’t think,” the interlocutor said. Answers flew around the table: “Snow White,” “Rapunzel,” “Jack and the Beanstalk.” The idea? The story you chose spoke volumes, supposedly.
That long-ago evening, no one chose “Bluebeard,” or even “Hansel and Gretel.” Certainly not “The Juniper Tree,” a tale by the Brothers Grimm—but Barbara Comyns did. Her novel of the same name, from 1985, met with mixed reviews when it first appeared in England. The Financial Times called it “delicate, tough, quick-moving . . . haunting,” but Kirkus recorded “a gruesome and emotionally erratic story . . . with a narrative that’s languid yet jarring, ranging from fecund, pastoral scenes to defacements, sudden deaths, and madness.” But the story has always had its partisans, and this winter it was reprinted by New York Review Books. Now that day after day of our civic life unfolds like a series of old tales—the girl who walks into the wood and is waylaid by a wolf, the emperor who has no clothes, and, this weekend, the girl from L.A. who grew up to marry a prince—Comyns’s retelling is gripping and prescient: in its own way, it’s a victim narrative. And not.
At the start, Comyns closely follows the original story. In my copy of the fairy tale—translated from the German by Lore Segal, whose perfect ear is complemented by Maurice Sendak’s tender, crepuscular drawings—the story is set two thousand years ago. A wealthy couple have everything they want but a child. One winter day, the woman cuts her finger while peeling an apple under a juniper tree. A red drop falls on the icy ground, and she wishes for a child red as blood and white as snow. She becomes pregnant, and, after seven months, has a craving for juniper berries; she eats some and falls ill. When she gives birth to a child with high color in his pale cheeks, she is so happy that she dies, and is buried under the juniper tree. Her husband takes a new wife, who has a child of her own, and who resents her little stepson for all the usual reasons.
One day, the boy comes home and finds his stepsister eating an apple. When he looks in the chest to find one for himself, his stepmother comes up from behind and shoves him. The lid decapitates him. It’s hard to imagine that things can get worse, but they do. The stepmother tries to conceal her crime by sitting the boy upright with a kerchief tied around his neck, but when his sister tries to rouse him she knocks his head off. She has killed her brother! Her mother does not disabuse her of this mad notion. Her solution is to chop the boy up, throw him into the stew pot, feed him to his unsuspecting father, and bury his remains under the juniper tree. A bird flies out of the tree, over the resting bones. Some readers may be familiar with its song. For me, it has the sound of an old nightmare, a tune sung by a child in the bath in a horror movie:
My mother she butchered me,
My father he ate me,
My sister, little Anne Marie,
she gathered up the bones of me
and tied them in a silken cloth
to lay under the juniper tree.
Tweet, twee, what a pretty bird am I!
The perspicacious bird—in Sendak’s drawing, a burly, much-feathered fellow—flies off, singing its haunting song, like the high note of a zither. The villagers who hear it are enchanted and give the bird gifts in return: a gold chain, a pair of red shoes, and a millstone. The bird delivers the first two gifts to the grieving father and to the little girl; the third is reserved for the wicked stepmother. On impact, she disappears in a smoke cloud. The bird turns into the red-cheeked boy. Was the bird the spirit of the boy all along? No matter. Happy again, the trio sits down to supper.
In Comyns’s version, which is set in the mid-twentieth century, the protagonist, Bella, who tells the tale in a confiding tone, like someone recounting a dream on a long bus ride, comes to Richmond, a suburb of London, to answer an advertisement for a job in an antique store. Like Cain, Bella is marked: she has a scar on her once beautiful face, the result of a near-fatal car accident. Near the train station, she sees a woman who has cut her hand peeling an apple under a juniper tree; in the park, she sees her again, wearing her blood-stained mitten. And so it begins. Bella gets the job. The owner lets Bella live above the shop with her little daughter, Marline. They are happy as two birds in a nest, with their bits and pieces: lace, old candlesticks, odd chairs. (Marline is half black, which is how Bella hazily remembers the girl’s father.) In Comyns’s retelling, Bella is taken up by Gertrude (the woman from the park) and her husband, Bernard, and becomes one of the family. In time, Gertrude becomes pregnant, eats the juniper berries, gives birth to a ruddy child, and dies. Bella falls in love with Bernard, who does not love her back. They marry anyway. Slatternly maids take sloppy care of the children; Bella is jealous of the attention paid to her stepson. Disaster is one step from the door.
Part of the dark pleasure of the book is seeing how Comyns is going to manage it. Sadie Stein, in her lucid introduction to “The Juniper Tree,” writes that the reader is like a child beguiled by a bedtime story. Comyns is adept at describing the flotsam of life: ants stuck in a tin of honey, a white tongue of spilt milk lapping the table, a flower recklessly flexing its petals. Bella is a quick, feral portraitist: the proprietor of the antiques shop, Miss Murray, has sharp teeth, like a squirrel’s; her mother’s suitor, Mr. Crimony, smells of coal dust and growls like an old dog. Comyns wrote twelve novels, including “Our Spoons Came from Woolworths”—an account of her first marriage, which, smack in the middle of its madcap pages, recounts a three-day labor in a badly staffed maternity ward with a level of verisimilitude that I don’t recall encountering elsewhere—and “The Vet’s Daughter,” a hallucinatory tale about an emotionally abused and cornered girl who discovers that she can levitate. Her first eight novels were written apace, but after an unenthusiastic critical reception of “A Touch of Mistletoe”—about a boozy, rackety family in postwar London—Comyns fell silent. The gap between her early books and the “The Juniper Tree” was almost twenty years. It was as if she were holding her breath, but, when she exhaled, her prose retained her customary pitch. It’s the slightly manic speech of someone just holding it together: a single girl of slender means weaving stories—the nattering, solipsistic voice of Fate.
Barbara Comyns was born in the village of Bidford-on-Avon, in Warwickshire, in 1907. The family house was called Bell Court, and the extensive gardens went down to the river. She was one of six children. Her father, a wealthy brewer, was an alcoholic, and the family devolved; her mother lost her hearing, after her final pregnancy, and communicated with her children by leaving notes around the house. Comyns attended art school in London, and married John Pemberton, a fellow-artist, in 1931; they moved in circles that included Dylan Thomas and Augustus John. The marriage was burdened by poverty and infidelity, and broke up, two children later, after three years. She embarked on a liaison with a black marketeer, supporting herself and her children by breeding poodles and, like Bella in “The Juniper Tree,” selling antiques. In 1945, she married Richard Carr, a civil servant; that life provided a less peripatetic existence, and her first novel, “Sisters by the River,” which drew on her childhood, was published in 1947. A friend from her husband’s office, Kim Philby, often came by to play cards. After Philby was revealed to be a double agent spying for the Russians, Carr was sacked, on the premise that he must have known; the couple left England and resided for many years in Spain.
Comyns died in Shropshire in 1992. When the novelist Jane Gardam visited her a few years before, Comyns’s cheerful art-school paintings were hung around the house. Gardam remarked that it was evident that Comyns had been a great beauty, as are most of the heroines of her novels. At her best, Comyns’s work brings to mind, as does her life, Penelope Fitzgerald’s sturdy, collapsible wit—intricate and functional as an umbrella—especially the Fitzgerald of “Offshore,” which chronicles her slipshod life caring for two children and an inefficient husband on a houseboat in the Thames. It is hard to avoid biographical connections, but Gardam points out that, while there is often a sneering mother in the novels, as there is in “The Juniper Tree,” Comyn’s own children do not remember their grandparents as harsh.
Toward the end of the novel, Bella recalls, “Now comes a terrible time, a time when I behaved quite out of character. It was as if my brain had turned into a broken elastic.” Is it our best or our worsts acts that reveal character? What prompts them? Comyns is expert at depicting how much of life happens as if by accident—buying a sofa, going on a journey, having a child, entering a marriage—but is equally adept at depicting the siren call of bad choices and misfortune. Is it wanting something too much that subverts the course of a life? A woman stands with an apple under a tree. A man wants to be king. A wolf has a taste for little girls. A couple has everything they want but a child. Comyns’s version of “The Juniper Tree,” unlike the fairy tale, ends with a nod toward the possibility of redemption, and it’s told in the voice of someone who knows she has done something terrible. How did she get there? How did we? Closing the book, I thought of Grace Paley, a writer whose stories peel back layers of truth-telling, and who tells us, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” It’s hard to resist the impulse to turn back to the page where Bella sees Gertrude peeling an apple under the tree, and lead her away by the hand, into another story.