The Lawlessness of Barbara Comyns

The Juniper Tree opens with a children’s rhyme, taken directly from the Grimms’ fairy tale of the same name.

My mother she killed me,

My father he ate me,

My sister, little Marlinchen,


Gathered together my bones,

Tied them in a silken handkerchief,


Laid them beneath the juniper tree,

Kywitt, Kywitt, what a beautiful bird I am.

Although published in 1985 and ostensibly set in late twentieth-century London, Barbara Comyns’s novel really takes place in a fantastical landscape, one that is dark, harsh, and dangerous for children and innocents. Among Comyns devotees, The Juniper Tree is divisive. Uncanny yet matter-of-fact, spooky yet gentle, naive and knowing, meticulous and strangely careless, it is considered by some to be among her most endearing works, while others dismiss it as chaotic. To me, it’s both—and therein lies its charm.

What no one would deny is that The Juniper Tree is consummate Comyns, amplifying the characteristics of much of her work. Like The Vet’s Daughter and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, this later novel features a heroine imperiled by a harsh (yet strangely mundane) world. Its style is a kind of unsentimental magical realism, in which the odd rich detail shines out of an otherwise abstract field. Such details tend to be visual—the “French gilt clock” on a relative’s mantel, a ring of “sapphire and two diamonds in a rather old-fashioned setting,” a basket of “charming but chipped Victorian china.” It’s not surprising to learn that Comyns considered herself, first, a painter.

Born in 1909 in Warwickshire, Barbara Comyns and her five siblings had a rather feral upbringing—absent parents, distracted governesses, little in the way of formal schooling for the girls. After her father’s death, Comyns attended art school, married, divorced, and lived a bohemian existence supporting her family with a variety of jobs. While working as a cook during World War II, she began writing stories to entertain her two young daughters—and, indeed, all of her books have the quality of dark children’s tales.

The Juniper Tree, complete with Grimm epigraph, makes explicit what had only been suggested in Comyns’s earlier writing. Bella is a young single mother. Scarred by a car accident and deeply isolated, she lives with her biracial daughter, Marlinchen, behind the antiques shop where she works. When she encounters the wealthy Gertrude and Bernard Forbes, she is enchanted by their happy marriage and welcoming home. The older couple takes an interest in Bella and Marlinchen, and the two small families become increasingly entwined, spending weekends and holidays together, much of them in the shade of the juniper tree in the Forbeses’ garden.

Bella is used to rejection, racism, and casual cruelty, but under the couple’s attention, she begins to heal from her wounds, both physical and psychological. Where the reader may be suspicious of the degree to which our narrator subsumes herself to her patrons’ will—becoming a de facto housekeeper and girl Friday—Bella is pathetically grateful. She seems incapable of agency, yielding to the whims of fate and other people with a passivity that’s both frustrating and in keeping with the story’s ingenuous tone. In time this passivity proves to be Bella’s armor: an oblivious resilience that allows her to weather horror and emerge, like the bird of the Grimms’ rhyme, with song intact.

Bella’s story ends abruptly, as if the author had lost interest in her heroine. This seeming abruptness is wholly in keeping with Comyns’s unorthodox approach to constructing character; in all of her fiction, and in The Juniper Tree most of all, there is something deeply haphazard about her powers of attention. Holding her to normal standards of literary propriety can be a thankless exercise—when, for no apparent reason, a character appears and is never seen again, or when another character’s personality and motivations seem to change completely from one page to the next.

I suppose it’s this random quality, as much as her lack of formal literary education, that has led some people to dub Comyns an “outsider artist.” Certainly, it’s hard to judge the exactitude with which she has plotted events and red herrings. To my mind, however, it’s also one of the chief pleasures of her oeuvre. Very quickly, you learn to stop judging and gauging and analyzing—trying to decide what she “meant” or which details are most likely to come in handy later on—and have to give yourself over wholly to the moment. Reading her is a curiously relaxing experience.

Rather than limiting Comyns, the fairy-tale source of The Juniper Tree gives her freedom to invent as needed, and at will. One character may be portrayed with the simple strokes of allegory; in the next moment, we are shown the furnishings of the Forbeses’ house and the layout of their garden; we hear all about the meals Bella prepares or the bric-a-brac she restores for her shop. Despite occasional references to contemporary life—technology, feminism, post-1960s sexual mores—this is a world outside normal time, populated by the antiques Bella treasures, and governed by the arbitrary laws of fairy tales.

As to happily ever afters, they are very equivocal things indeed. Joy is balanced by heartbreak. If one character finds contentment, another must pay with her life and happiness. Like a child listening to a bedtime story, the reader is beguiled by the simple narrative tone into a false sense of security, only to find herself shocked by the lawlessness of Comyns’s universe.


From The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published by NYRB Classics. Introduction copyright © 2018 by Sadie Stein.

Sadie Stein is a writer and critic living in New York. She is a contributing editor to The Paris Review.

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