Fiction – paperback; Scribner Paperback Fiction; 464 pages; 2001.
Goldberry Long’s Juniper Tree Burning rockets up into my Top Ten Fiction Books Ever Published.
It’s complex and challenging but the writing is so exquisite and so beautifully crafted that it’s almost impossible to find fault with it.
Despite the story jumping backwards and forwards in time and the narrator shifting between first person and third person, the novel is riveting, mesmerising, passionate and unsentimental. It is, in no uncertain terms, a modern masterpiece.
Essentially it is a coming of age story told through the eyes of Juniper Tree Burning, the daughter of hippies living in a shabby adobe in New Mexico. Bullied at school and ashamed of her parent’s alternative lifestyle, Jennie (as she renames herself) desperately wants to belong.
But it is her love for her much younger brother, Sunny Boy Blue, which binds her to the family and it’s unconventional lifestyle from which she longs to escape. It is this paradox which forever taunts her, even into adulthood where she has transformed herself into a tough, rebellious and determined young doctor.
Newly married, Jennie hopes that she will live happily ever after in the mistaken belief that this is what normal people do. But she’s not normal. Even when she hears news of her brother’s suicide, her reaction is unconventional. Underwhelmed by grief, she flees her husband, buys a truck and takes off across the American West to the site of Sunny’s death. The book, therefore, is also a road story. And it is while Jennie is on the road that she is forced to confront her painful past, to come to terms with her upbringing and her relationships, and her need to accept love.
If nothing else, Juniper Tree Burning is an insightful look at the bond between siblings and the long-lasting impact that our childhood has on our adult life and relationships. You would be hard pressed to find a book more emotionally powerful than this one. I will be recommending it to as many people as I can and I will probably be re-reading it as well.