At first, I rated this book a three, but after letting my review marinate and re-reading sections of the novel, its brilliance really deserves a four. This book really is magnificent in many ways. The prose is gorgeous, real-life effects of trauma are woven into classic fairy tale architecture making the story inescapably disturbing. Grimm’s fairy tales always made me want to hide under the covers as a child, but Ava Reid gave new life to those dark themes making them more present, real, and emotionally compelling, but at times just too much to bear.
When I started reading the book, I was immediately pulled in by its elegance and poignance, intrigued by the story, captivated by the magic and monsters, but the intensity of the abuse at Marlinchen’s home, and one particular scene which I will never read again, made all of the things I loved about the book slip into the background. I felt betrayed in a sense.
One scene, one character, made me originally give this book a lower rating. I didn’t expect such a scene in a fantasy/fairy tale novel, no matter how dark. When I read it, I felt myself go numb. I was reading in bed and woke my husband up to tell him what I read so I could process it. I put the book down for several weeks. While there is a trigger warning here on Goodreads, I didn’t see it until after reading the book. The scene and the character could be removed entirely and the book would not be less for it in any way, and I would have been free to entirely cherish this skillful interpretation of The Juniper Tree.
After a few weeks of letting the book sit, and with apprehension, I returned to the story so I could finish and review it. I was again taken into this world and wrapped up in its dark, painful, and achingly beautiful tale. I found myself invested in every character (all but one, as mentioned above), even the monsters.
Trauma is the backbone of this story. It ties all of the characters together. Even the main romantic relationship seems to be a trauma bond built on the need to escape and to find belonging. I find this interesting because it’s something classic Grimm fairy tales didn’t flesh out. They were dark and disturbing, but Juniper & Thorn takes this to the next level by showing the symptoms and consequences of trauma in the characters’ lives. I can only imagine writing this novel was both cathartic and emotionally exhausting.
If one scene were removed, I would recommend this book to those who love very dark fairy tales and witchy fantasy, main characters who unfold and discover themselves before your eyes, and rich prose that pulls you through each page to the next. As it is though, I found the novel to be too triggering to recommend widely. I don’t regret reading it, but I do regret not checking Goodreads prior for the trigger warning.
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