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The Juniper Tree

In the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "The Juniper Tree" 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.

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 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, Bella is jobless and homeless, but she is resourceful 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. 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 and care for 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.

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. 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. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia