The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

A Brothers Grimm fairy tale recast in 1980s London features a single mother fighting against long odds for her place in the world.

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The Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Juniper Tree” features a wicked stepmother. A pious wife desperately wants a child; her wish is granted, but she dies just after giving birth to a son. Her husband buries her under a juniper tree and remarries, but his new wife, favoring her own daughter, cooks her stepson into a stew and feeds it to his father. Her daughter buries the boy’s bones under the juniper tree with his mother. He is reincarnated as a bird, who sings to the townspeople about his murder.

Barbara Comyns’s The Juniper Tree, originally published in 1985, bears an epigraph from the fairy tale: “My mother she killed me, my father he ate me,” but from there diverges sharply from the original. In 1980s London, Bella Winter has had a run of bad luck. Her pretty face has been badly scarred in an automobile accident. She has only recently escaped a manipulative relationship with a selfish man and withdrawn from her unloving mother. She has a young daughter of mixed race she calls Marline, born out of wedlock and fathered by a man whose name she didn’t catch. In the opening pages, she is jobless and homeless, but she is resourceful and unsentimental, and soon finds a home and vocation in a small antiques shop. The friendship of an upper-class couple, Bernard and Gertrude, completes her happiness, and she spends long, sweet afternoons with Gertrude sitting under the juniper tree in the couple’s garden. She even sees a fragile reunion with her mother. This contentment is shattered, however, when Gertrude’s longed-for pregnancy ends in both birth and death. Bella plays an increasingly large role in helping Bernard run his household with the baby, Johnny, and Marline becomes like a sister to the boy. When Bernard convinces Bella to marry him, however, her life takes a turn toward the Brothers Grimm.

Bella is a remarkable narrator and protagonist. Practical, independent, resilient, she builds a neat life for herself and her daughter, meeting all their needs and bothering no one. The friendship of the wealthier couple, which brings her such joy, turns out to be a curse, and Bella the tragic hero. Comyns turns the fairy tale on its head and complicates it with class and racial tensions, mental illness and the timeless struggle of a young woman to chart her own course. This is a richer, more relevant, modern rendering of the classic, heartbreaking in its fine attention to detail and its realistic, hardy heroine. While no knowledge of “The Juniper Tree” is necessary to appreciate this version, those familiar with the original will appreciate many subtle references. This edition includes a brief, helpful introduction by critic Sadie Stein, offering context within Comyns’s body of work. The Juniper Tree is a poignant, quietly disturbing novel for fans of strong female protagonists and dark fairy tales, and anyone who roots for the underdog.


This review originally ran in the December 21, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 magpies.

The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren, trans. by Ellen Flynn

In this grown-up fairy tale, a young women’s battles with poverty, violence and neglect are further complicated when a mystical creature enters her life.

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Carl-Johan Vallgren’s The Merman, translated from the Swedish by Ellen Flynn, concerns the realistic and heartbreaking circumstances of teenaged Nella and her little brother, Robert; at the same time, it is a dark fairy tale about a mythical creature from the deep and the possibility of resisting evil.

Nella and Robert’s parents are terribly incompetent, uncaring people, more focused on drinking and crime than their children’s welfare. Robert struggles with learning disabilities and is bullied at school; protecting him, getting him the glasses he needs, and his general well-being falls to his sister. Nella is hard-pressed to handle the responsibilities of the household, including cleaning up after her alcoholic mother, about whom she muses, “it was about as hard to judge her as it was to understand her.” This mature and nuanced observation is typical of a girl who, despite her own troubles, seems drawn to others who need her help, such as a disabled man who is one of her few friends.

When the neighborhood bullies begin to threaten Robert with violence, Nella turns to her only ally at school, a boy named Tommy. But contact with Tommy’s brothers presents a new difficulty. They have pulled a mystical being from the ocean, whose otherworldly nature and wordless communication will change everything Nella understands about her life. All at once, Nella struggles with the bullies’ extortion and Robert’s fear; their father is released from prison and brings criminals home with him to disrupt their fragile household; their mother threatens to leave; and the sea creature looks to Nella for help. A burdened but strong and compassionate young woman, she will learn and grow through these tests, and wins the reader’s heart by the time her story reaches the final, hard decisions.

Nella is a compelling protagonist, reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in her miserable circumstances, but with a harder, more adult edge. Robert’s suffering is almost unbearable, but sadly realistic. In Ellen Flynn’s translation of Vallgren’s tale, dialogue can be a bit stiff and formal, especially in the children’s cases, but overall she establishes a tone appropriate to the balance of reality and mysticism in Nella’s story, and the stark ugliness of her life. Vallgren evokes his fantasy element with wonder and detail; The Merman is a singular story. Fans of adult fairy tales and bleak realism will be haunted and enthralled by this novel of human tragedies, and the mystery of what lies beyond.


This review originally ran in the November 5, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 cartons of cigarettes.

The Wild Swan: And Other Tales by Michael Cunningham; illustrated by Yuko Shimizu

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham darkly reimagines classic fairy tales, with moodily appropriate illustrations.

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Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Hours) takes a fresh and dark look at a selection of classic fairy tales with A Wild Swan: And Other Tales. His brief, richly imagined new stories, often based only loosely on their models, are accompanied by detailed, atmospheric black-and-white illustrations by Yuko Shimizu.

An introduction teases readers to acknowledge that they, too, enjoy seeing the fairy tales’ “manifestations of perfection”–those with “comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm”–cut low. Cunningham then proceeds to do just that with his versions of originals by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and others.

Here readers will find the “crazy old lady” who lures Hansel and Gretel to her cottage of candy in the woods; but Hansel and Gretel are pierced and tattooed, and sexy “with their starved and foxy faces.” Snow White’s prince is obsessed with the beautiful deathly version of her he discovered in the coffin, and troublingly insists on replaying the scene over and over again. Rumpelstiltskin is surprisingly well intentioned–for the most part. Rapunzel’s life following the closure of the Grimms’ tale is revealed, and it’s a good thing she kept her severed braids. The Beast has grown to be a bad boy, even after Beauty gives him her love. He is “impeccably handsome” with “a lascivious, bestial smile; a rapacious and devouring smile,” the one who might catch your eye on the subway or at “the after-hours party your girlfriend has insisted on,” but you’ll come to regret it. And in the title story, the princess is successful in transforming all of her brothers but one back to their fully human forms.

Cunningham sometimes brings these stories into more or less modern times, but the point of this collection is not to recast the classics with smartphones and fast cars, and the setting of some remains unchanged. Rather, these are playful riffs on well-known stories, almost always with a still gloomier tone than even the Brothers Grimm applied. The mood of these tales of disturbing fetishes, murderous schemings and pedestrian human flaws such as hubris, laziness and jealousy is eventually relieved, however, by Cunningham’s final flourish, entitled “Ever/After.”

A Wild Swan works expert mischief with backstory, aftermath, interludes and retellings of well-known favorites. These tales are not always for the kids, of course, but will appeal to an intersection of dark humor and nostalgia for timeless stories, or anyone with an appreciation for a deliciously spooky imagination.


This review originally ran in the November 5, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 minutes under the lid.

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Two historical storylines, great evil, and an abiding mystery combine into one sinister and memorable fairy tale for the stout of heart.

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As the title Gretel and the Dark suggests, Eliza Granville’s debut novel is a grim, spooky fairy tale. But keeping with the nature of any good fairy tale, there is another layer: it is also a meditation on historical good and evil, set both in Nazi Germany and fin de si├Ęcle Austria.

In 1899, a shockingly beautiful young woman is rescued off the street and delivered to the home of celebrated Viennese psychoanalyst Josef Breuer. She claims to have no identity, so the besotted Josef calls her Lilie, a name that will come to have greater significance than he originally intended. She is emaciated, bruised and beaten, hair shorn, with numbers inked on her arm. The story she tells is simply not possible: when questioned, Lilie tells Josef that she is not human but a machine, sent to kill a monster, whom she must find before he grows too large. She frightens him with her dreamy fantasies of how she’ll do it–“it doesn’t take long to kick someone to death”–but she casts an irresistible spell, and Josef (and his equally smitten gardener) is driven to puzzle out the truth of her history and the abuses she has experienced.

In the parallel plot, told in alternate chapters set several decades later, a little girl named Krysta pouts as the world around her changes. Her father works in a “zoo” during the days and can’t stop washing his hands at night; she is surrounded by unfriendly people, and retreats into her imagination to avoid the hazards and hatred she can’t understand. As her personal situation deteriorates and her circle of trusted acquaintances shrinks, Krysta hopes to save herself using the fairy tales on which she was raised–even, or especially, the nasty ones, with wolves, witches, beheadings and gore.

In precise balance and crafted in lovely, lyrical language, Gretel and the Dark is a masterpiece of fantasy, horror, childhood innocence and the evils of both our innermost imaginings and our shared history. Deliciously chilling and both fantastical and gravely real, with momentum building throughout, Granville’s extraordinary debut holds its crucial secrets to the last, adding suspense to its virtues. The connection between the not-entirely-likeable little Krysta and the enigmatic Lilie remains an open question until the final pages, and the power of imagination and storytelling is a prominent theme. This chilling, fantastical tale will simultaneously entertain and provoke serious contemplation on the depths of human depravity.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the October 7, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 10 cherries.
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