There’s an insidious mood found in the novels of Barbara Comyns, an unsettling evocation of that place where the familiar falls away and reveals the uncanny, the supernatural, and the unknown. Over the course of her 1954 novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead — whose title gives a sense of the dread conveyed in its pages — the members of a family slowly give in to a pernicious madness that spreads like disease, turning the novel’s invocation of the pastoral charms of the English countryside into something far more menacing.
Comyns’s 1959 novel The Vet’s Daughter explores the tense relationship between a father and a daughter, but it’s laced with the latter’s supernatural abilities. By the time of the novel’s climax, they accelerate the book — which has previously fallen largely into the “chamber piece” category — into full-blown gothic horror, the repressed suddenly coming to the forefront, a host of menaces in tow.
For those unfamiliar with Barbara Comyns’s work, it’s not misleading to compare her with Shirley Jackson: both explored ambiguous spaces between psychological realism and hallucinatory revenants; both also excelled at traveling into the minds of troubled young women possessing strengths and dangers in equal measure. And like Jackson’s, Comyns’s work has plenty of contemporary champions: in a 2014 interview in The Guardian, Helen Oyeyemi spoke of her admiration for Comyns’s 1962 novel The Skin Chairs; and in 2010, Brian Evenson wrote the introduction for a new edition of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead.
But to simply file Comyns among the practitioners of the deeply weird and the subtly uncanny is to miss something about her work. She was also capable of writing a gut-wrenching story in a realist vein: consider the 1950 novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, in which she wrote frankly about a woman falling out of love with her husband and experiencing the devastating effects of chronic poverty. (It’s not for nothing that the introduction to NYRB Classics’ recent edition is by Emily Gould, whose fiction excels in astute observations of how class inflects the dynamics of love and friendship.)
The Juniper Tree (1985) was the first of three novels Comyns published in the 1980s, before her death in 1991. It occupies a fascinating position in its relationship to both the fantastical and the mundane. It’s a realistic story about a single mother trying to make the best of her life in London and, eventually, navigating a troublesome marriage; it’s also an adaptation of a fairy tale — an Ur-story that takes on its own increasingly powerful role in the characters’ lives.
“My mother she killed me, / My father he ate me,” goes the song contained in the fairy tale “The Juniper Tree.” It’s an obviously unsettling piece of verse; it’s one where the voice is resigned to its fate, and it’s one in which the familial and the horrific are fully intertwined. It’s not for nothing that an award-winning anthology of contemporary fairy tales from 2010, edited by Kate Bernheimer, used this as its title.
In the case of Comyns’s novel, it serves as the epigraph and hangs disconcertingly over the proceedings, signaling that something terrible is on the horizon. Which isn’t to say that the novel doesn’t have plenty of ugliness from the outset: protagonist Bella Winter is a single mother doing her best to provide for her daughter, Marline, and make a living for herself. Marline is biracial; Bella’s mother, who can barely contain her racism (and sometimes doesn’t), is of no help to the family and frequently alienates both her daughter and granddaughter.
An early glimpse of Bella’s adolescence puts that bond into sharp focus, helps establish the novel’s theme of flawed parent/child relationships, and gives a great sense of Bella’s narrative candor.
My mother was the games mistress at a local school which I attended. At first the girls teased me and called me “teacher’s pet,” but when they saw how she treated me the teasing ceased.
Bella’s father abandoned the family when his daughter was young, causing a lasting rift between mother and daughter and setting this flawed familial dynamic in motion.
Early on, Bella’s situation seems dire: she struggles with poverty, and she bears the literal scar of an old relationship: a mark on her face that resulted from an auto accident caused when she was out for a drive with a former boyfriend. Slowly, her circumstances improve: she finds a job working at a shop and discovers that she’s quite good at it. It’s through that job that she meets and befriends Gertrude Forbes and her husband, Bernard, an affluent couple who live nearby. If Bella’s mother is a case study in alienating behavior, Gertrude is quite the opposite: a nurturing, caring figure who buoys the spirits of everyone around her.
Soon enough, Gertrude and Bernard are expecting their first child. Throughout the first half of the novel, Comyns balances these small joys with Bella’s distinctive narrative voice: sometimes self-effacing (her scar seems far worse in her own description than when others allude to it), sometimes understating some quiet horrors until the sheer scale of them trickles out. It’s an impressive way of balancing the bleaker aspects of this narrative with its moments of happiness. But lurking over everything is the fairy tale song in the epigraph and all that it portends. Besides its mention of a murderous mother and a cannibalistic father, it also alludes to a sister named Marlinchen.
All of this, then, lends a cast of inevitability to what comes next. Circumstances place Bella and Bernard together, as she does her best to raise Bernard and Gertrude’s son, Johnny, alongside Marline. On the one hand, this is a novel told in a realistic tone, about a hardworking, unflappable character making her way in the world. Under the rules of such a novel, a happy ending seems likely. On the other hand, there’s the fairy tale at the beginning, which suggests that a much bleaker outcome is on the horizon. Bella has become a stepmother; stepmothers rarely fare well in fairy tale narratives, both in terms of their actions and in terms of their fates. And as Johnny grows older, into someone who was “by nature an obedient boy, particularly when his father was not around,” he becomes a figure over whom danger hovers, solely due to his role in a narrative much older than him.
Throughout the novel, Comyns balances expectations, shifting seamlessly from one mode to the other, allowing two different sorts of tragedy to intermingle. Given that this novel subverts the trope of the wicked stepmother, it’s not ludicrous to think that it and Helen Oyeyemi’s similarly minded Boy, Snow, Bird would make for a fine literary double bill. In a recent essay by Leslie Jamison, about her own process of becoming a stepmother, Jamison described the process of reading fairy tales to her stepdaughter.
When I read her the old fairy tales about daughters without mothers, I worried that I was pushing on the bruises of her loss. When I read her the old fairy tales about stepmothers, I worried I was reading her an evil version of myself.
Everyone wants to believe they are the hero of their own story. Many people look to archetypal narratives to find one that mirrors of echoes their own life. But what happens when those archetypes suggest that you’re destined to be the villain of the story? While there are no overtly supernatural elements in The Juniper Tree, that sense of fate — of the accumulated power of hundreds of old stories taking on a malevolent form of agency — ultimately becomes the novel’s antagonist. Bella is capable of great love; her ability to protect her daughter is admirable and frequently heroic. But in the course of the novel, she’s one person; the weight of so many stories is like a force of nature.
If all of that makes The Juniper Tree sound as though it’s about a subtly waged war between ages-old stories and the shorter-lived humans who hear and retell them, that impression isn’t too far off the mark. And while this isn’t in full-blown Neil Gaiman or Jorge Luis Borges territory, it shares with the works of those writers the sense of how stories can infiltrate and influence the tactile world. One can read The Juniper Tree as a realistic tale of one woman’s shifting fortunes, or one can regard it as something more complex and almost metafictional. But what endures, besides the chilling weight of the tragic events that punctuate the narrative, is the way in which another narrative envelops this one, a ghost of a story that haunts the proceedings. Barbara Comyns could vividly depict the grit of life’s hardships just as easily as she could take readers past the border of the strange. In The Juniper Tree, she memorably did both.