The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The plot of The Juniper Tree is, at first, deceptively simple. Narrated in a matter-of-fact, emotionally detached tone, one would never guess the hardships and suffering that are yet to come in this story. Bella Winter escapes her cruel and harsh mother by moving in with a boyfriend who has a tendency to be verbally abusive towards her. Bella’s face is permanently scared in an car accident which her boyfriend, Stephen, causes. When their relationship finally dissolves, Bella moves on from Stephen but finds herself pregnant after a one night stand with a black man she never sees again.

But Bella is never bitter or harsh, she accepts her life and loves her daughter and even finds happiness by working in an antique shop. Bella’s daughter, Tommy, thrives on Bella’s love despite the fact that many people, including her own mother, are judgmental about her biracial daughter. Comyns’s depiction of what it is like for a single mother and her innocent daughter to suffer from racism in 20th century Britain is true to life and heartbreaking. I was captivated by Bella’s simple yet happy outlook as she doesn’t view her scar, her daughter or her occupation as obstacles to her contentment. But Comyns draws the reader into the tragedy that will eventually occur in brilliantly subtle ways.

When Bella meets Bernard and Gertrude Forbes, a wealthy couple who take Bella and Tommy under their wing, hints of tragedy start to appear. Although she spends weekends at the Forbes’s well-appointed home and garden and becomes a integral part of their family by helping them with domestic chores, Bella still retains her freedom and cherishes her antique shop and her own space. Bernard, in particular, seems patronizing towards Bella and views her as his pet project. His attempts to educate her about art, music and languages reminded me a bit of Ovid’s Pygmalion myth.

Tragedy strikes in the story when Bella, against her better judgment, gives up her freedom. She thinks she is making decisions to enhance her daughter’s education and future, but she knows that sacrificing her own, simple joys, is a bad decision. This book is equally as important and relevant in the 21st century as a commentary about women, social roles, and the balance that mothers and wives have to make between the comfort and safety of their families and their own individual needs. It’s something I struggle with personally every day.

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