A dark reimagining of a fairytale that tries to show the real impact living in a folktale might have on those who experience it.
|Cover illustration: Darling Clementine|
Content warnings: discussion of sexual assault, child abuse, antisemitism and eating disorder
At what point does darkness in a book become less about realism, or stakes, or a sense of danger, and more about having all the horrible things simply for their own sakes? This is the question I am left with most pressingly after finishing Juniper & Thorn.
It's a retelling of The Juniper Tree - though a rather loose one, drawing on broader themes rather than necessarily any specifics, and filling gaps or making changes to suit the novel format. And indeed, not only is it doing that, but it attempts to interrogate the strictures and the form of the fairytale as it goes along. The protagonist is very aware of what genre of story she's in, and what that might mean for her and those around her. We follow Marlinchen, youngest of three daughters of the last wizard in Oblya, a city sprung up from the steppe, obliterating the magic that lingered there before. She and her sisters live with their cruel and cursed father, trying to get by without sparking his rages and scrape together a living with the few customers he considers worthwhile seeing. He hates the city and the modern world, and will not let them out into it for fear of what might happen to them, but the girls long for freedom and, of course, sneak out. At the ballet, Marlinchen sees a beautiful dancer with whom she is smitten, and everything begins to spiral out from there. We watch as Marlinchen begins to develop her taste for rebellion and escape, and exactly what she has to grapple with at home to reach for what she wants in life.
In the broad strokes, it definitely has that fairytale feel - three daughters, cruel father, a mother that was turned into a bird years before - but the difference lies in the detail. Fairytales, by their nature, don't tend to delve into the psychological reality of living with a cruel, controlling man in a world that is rapidly leaving him behind. But in Juniper & Thorn, Ava Reid does exactly that. As the book goes on, we see more and more of exactly what Marlinchen has grown up with. She starts the book seemingly just a mousey waif, but as we see through her eyes and her memories, it becomes much darker and more twisted. We learn about the abuses she suffered as a child from her father and from others that he knew about but didn't stop, some of it sexual in nature. But what we learn most is how she actually sees the world, and how it feels to be the third daughter in the sort of fairytale where the eldest is the pretty one and the middle is the clever one, and the youngest is simply the youngest.
And it's pretty grim. It's a world of being told she's not as pretty as her sisters. That she's plain, stupid, simple, ugly, fat, useless, and being ignored and pushed around. And because Juniper & Thorn is dedicated to showing what this might actually do to a person, we see how much she hates her own body and face, how much she's internalised the idea that her sisters are pretty and she is not. We see her forcing herself to throw up her food after eating so she can be thinner. We see her completely unable to comprehend that someone might find her attractive, let alone someone she think is as ludicrously beautiful as Sevas, the book's ballet star love interest.
Sevas is someone else whose insecurities and hardships are laid bare for us to see. While beautiful, he's also shown early in the narrative using alcohol as a coping mechanism, and then soon after to be controlled and abused both physically and verbally by his "handler" Derkach. While he knows he's beautiful know, he is obsessed with the idea that by thirty, he'll be too old and ugly for the ballet and thus worthless, and so he throws his life away in the now because what's the point of hanging onto it? We don't see the story through his eyes - we are very securely rooted in Marlinchen's perspective - but even with only what he tells her, we see the cruelty and harshness of being who he is in the fairytale (and also not-fairytale) world.
And it's an... odd world. Because you have the fantastical and the mundane lying so close side by side, with the wizard and his family representing the "Old World" from before the city came, there is a constant disjoint between people and ideas moving between the house and the rest of the world. We have penny presses and phrenology and day workers in factories alongside a wizard whose wife was turned into a bird and who has an old god satyr living in his garden. And no attempt is made to reconcile these two. If anything, the contrast is the point, because the contrast is the conflict - the magical and mundane worlds, at least to the wizard's eyes, are irreconcilable, and the presence and growth of the city is an active detriment to magic and those who practice it. Marlinchen has grown up with this worldview, and it is part of why her life is so restricted, to keep her away from the evil, encroaching, destructive, immoral city and all its problems and horrors.
Which brings us to one of the potential issues with the book. Marlinchen's father Zmiy is profligate with his hatreds; nearly anyone involved in or related to the city is likely to be the subject of his ire. However, because the world is one that is a thinly veiled copy of some aspects of our own, this brings up some slightly iffy points. The story itself is set in a fantasy Russia-esque place - we have references to the tsar, and the steppes that existed before the city encroached - but the city of Oblya is home to others as well. There are Ionik people mentioned at several points, clearly an analogue to the Greeks, but the group that comes up most often is the Yehuli, who are equally clearly an analogue for Jewish people. The problem comes with the fact that we only ever see the Yehuli talked about in the book by those who hate or distrust them. Zmiy hates them, and accuses them of all sorts of vices. But it isn't just him - Sevas is Yehuli, and his handler Derkach takes every opportunity to remind him that he is "only" a Yehuli boy pulled from the slums. A character who comes up at several points is a phrenologist, who is noted to have discussed how the Yehuli have prominent areas of their anatomy associated with capitalism which gives them an "advantage" at it, such that the leaders of the city have had to legislate to prevent them using this unfairly. None of the characters who espouse these views are people we are meant to like or trust, but at the same time, we see almost nothing of the Yehuli from the mouth of someone positive or even neutral towards them, let alone a Yehuli themself. Even Sevas only touches on being Yehuli briefly when talking about his mother. It is not so much that I wanted the story to erase the obvious historical antisemitism that is being evoked here - it was real, constant and pervasive and that obviously deserves its own page time - but when we had a Yehuli character so prominent, it seems a shame to have only the opinions of those who hate him on the page, never his own, especially when so many of those hatreds are so caricaturedly ugly. It would have been nice to have a little of his own experience of himself or his people, as a brief glimmer of contrast against all the bigotry.
But then again, it's not a book concerned with having nice things or happiness. Which is somewhat the other of its problems. On the one hand, that it shows the grim psychological reality of living with an abuser, and the mental toll it might take on someone to have lived that life, is to be praised. Fairytales and their retellings so often gloss over the nastiness, surprisingly so when many of the stories upon which they're based contain murders, cannibalism, gruesome transformations and more. But we're expected to believe that Hansel and Gretel cope fine after pushing the witch into the oven, because to deal with anything otherwise isn't the point of the story. And so it feels worthwhile to have one that explores this aspect of things, especially given that the tale it draws inspiration from is so dark, as a much needed point of contrast to many of the other versions that exist.
However. The darkness in the story is so unrelenting and particularly some of the descriptions of it so lingering, so closely described, that there are, at times, moments where you feel that we've stepped out of simply exploring the emotional impact of fairytale happenings, and instead are maybe just here for the darkness for its own sake. There are repeated motifs, including one based on a character's trauma from preteen years of someone touching her inappropriately, particularly on her nipples. We see flashbacks of that scene multiple times, and there follows a recurring theme of her imagining nipples - her own and other people's - being chopped off with garden clippers. That the scene focuses so much on this image, especially the feeling of his hand on her skin, how it looked, could easily either be a testament to its lingering impact on her, or something less wholesome. When taken with so many other scenes in the book - which is generally quite concerned with the physical and bodily reactions to events - it is easy to be uncertain. Which way it goes is likely an individual decision for the reader.
My final criticism is one that can be laid at the feet of many books. Juniper & Thorn is described in many places as a feminist retelling, but in truth, I don't know that it is one. It is a retelling that centres a female experience, and one in which the female experience is an oppressive one, but beyond that? I'm not sure. Especially given the predominance of female perspectives in fairytale retellings, simply putting a woman in the front seat doesn't feel sufficient for a feminist label.
On the whole, Juniper & Thorn is a book of ambiguity. Much of what it does could land, or could utterly fail for any given reader just based on their particular take on it, their background and their own experiences. If it has a failing for me, it is that the doubt exists at all. And while I found some parts of it refreshingly original, others strayed too much into darkness that felt like it served neither character development nor plot, and simply existed to be able to say just how dark a book it was. That being said, it definitely earns the distinction of being quite unlike most other fairytale retellings, and that it attempts at several points a critique of the genre is definitely a plus. The moments of awareness by Marlinchen of being in a story, and what that means for her, were particularly interesting, and if anything could have been developed further into something more concrete. But they weren't, and in the end, while it distinguishes itself from the rest of the genre, the problems it has while doing so ultimately hold it back from truly excelling.
Baseline Assessment: 7/10
Penalties: -1 the grimness gets very, very overwhelming
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10
Reference: Ava Reid, Juniper & Thorn [Del Rey, 2022]
POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea