5 August 2020

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

A few weeks ago we took the train to Toronto for the first time since mid-March.  Our agenda for the day was a short one: browse the books for an hour at BMV and then lunch on the patio at The Oxley in Yorkville.  The skies were bright blue, the sun was hot and the afternoon went by all too fast.  I picked up Orlando by Virginia Woolf because I absolutely loved the library's copy and wanted  needed one to own.  Then I chose two books I didn't know existed by authors I admire very much -  The Bachelors by Muriel Spark and The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns.  Turning to the first page of the latter....

'Quite soon after I left Richmond station......'

Train stations....the author has already ticked a box.  Having previously read four other books by Comyns and loving each one, I was confident The Juniper Tree would be good value for my money.

Bella Winter is on her way to a job interview at an antique shop when she sees a woman cut herself while peeling an apple.  Blood drips onto the snow evoking the atmosphere of a fairy tale.  After a fleeting conversation to make sure the woman is alright, Bella is late for her job interview.   Unfortunately the hours on offer do not mesh with Bella's need to be available for her two year-old daughter but sensing Bella's desperate need of a job, the owner refers her to a shop on the other side of the river.

Mary Meadows Antique Shop borders Twickenham Green and is just the right mix of jumble, dust, and endless possibility.  A sense of security washes over Bella when she's offered both a job and a room at the back of the shop that includes a tiny kitchen.  Having been raised in an unhappy home, ending a less than satisfactory relationship, then conceiving a child after a one night stand has meant coping with one emotional hurdle after another.  It would seem that Bella's hope for a brighter future is finally within reach.

Soon after, the woman who cut her hand appears at Bella's place of work and a friendship begins.  Gertrude is married to Bernard, a worldly picture dealer with a gallery in the West End.  Bella thinks their home in Richmond is like a palace and the beautiful garden with a tree swing is a wonderland for her daughter.  At first I was suspicious of the Forbeses attachment to little Marline, whom Bernard fondly refers to as 'Marlinchen', but when Gertrude announces that she is pregnant after waiting for sixteen years I put that idea to rest.

The birth of Bernard and Gertrude's baby boy marks the end of the first act of this story.  What follows next could easily be seen as filler, such as domestic issues concerning the Spanish childminders and their boyfriends, the displeasure of one housekeeper after another, and Bella's increasing ties to the Forbes' household.  Bella begins to feel torn about a change in her situation and just when I was thinking she was having the scales removed from her eyes, there is a frightening tragedy.  The situation goes from very bad to worse when Bella realizes there is no going back.

Published in 1985 I wondered if perhaps Comyns had mellowed a bit.  She's pulled the rug out from under me before, such as with the ending in The Vet's Daughter but for much of The Juniper Tree I was lulled by a quaint antique shop and a lovely house in Richmond.  Twenty pages from the end you won't be able to put the book down.

Based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale of the same name it was fun to notice a few whimsical moments such as a fast-growing vine, a woman with sharp little teeth, a 'hunchback' who wears a cape, and of course, the blood in the snow and an apple.  Barbara Comyns has set her version of this fairy tale during 1980 but it has the feeling of 1960 about it.  

A perfect read for when the nights draw in!

  Artist credit - unknown

12 comments:

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    1. It caused me to gasp a couple of times, Sandra! A very good read for October as a slow-burning haunting sort of read.

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  2. I read this may years ago, and you have me wanting to re-read. Luckily it is on a shelf and not in one of the boxes that are waiting for the carpenter to build shelves.

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    1. As I wrote in my comment to Sandra, this would be a perfect read for October or anytime once the nights start drawing in. Actually, we're already seeing a bit of that, aren't we. And new shelves, you say...lovely!

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  3. You've sold it to me, too! Never read Comyns.

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    1. Well then, Nicola...you're in for a discovery if you venture into Comyns' work. My gateway title was Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. It's what I think of as a 'hug to your chest' book once you've finished. I hope you give her a try!

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  4. I've read her before, but you've sold me on this one. Thanks for a marvelous review.

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    1. Morning, Mystica! It's such a good feeling when you buy a book, know nothing about it.....and you absolutely love it. I hope you can find a copy!

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  5. I read The Juniper Tree earlier this year and found it very surreal. It did seem very 1960s, didn't it? I didn't realize it was based on a fairy tale because I never read introductions (too many spoilers). Her books are quirky, aren't they?

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    1. I'm with you regarding introductions. Sometimes they're very helpful for pointing out themes but I have no idea why the writers are allowed to include spoilers.
      Comyns is definitely quirky and always memorable. You never quite know what you're in for but so far it's always been very good and lots of fun.

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  6. I absolutely love Our Spoons Came from Woolworths but haven't read anything else by Comyns. I will have to buy this and save it for an October evening (which isn't all that far away really...)!

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    1. Hi Anbolyn! October isn't far away at all but it won't be the same without Fall Fairs and Halloween. Cuddling up with a good book will never be in doubt though!

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