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Barbara Comyns’s Inescapable Novel “The Juniper Tree”

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“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


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