Book Review: 'Gretel and the Dark'

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Eliza Granville. Hamish Hamilton Ltd

Lately, fairy tales have begun to fascinate me in the way they hadn't previously. Maybe it's all of the "Once Upon a Time" I've been watching recently, but I'm finding something magical in these tales (and I mean this with absolutely no pun intended).

Maybe this is what pulled me to Eliza Granville's debut novel, "Gretel and the Dark." The title alone sounds like a fairy tale -- reminiscent of the story of Hansel and Gretel.

"Gretel and the Dark" is a novel in two intertwining parts. In the first, its 1899 in Vienna and psychoanalyst Josef Breuer is trying to find the identity and purpose of a mysterious young woman that was brought to his practice. He's nicknamed her Lilie, though she seems unwilling to reveal her true name, if she even knows. She refers to herself as a machine, and seems hell-bent on finding an equally mysteriously "monster" and killing him with her bare hands.

In the second story, still in Vienna though several years later, in Nazi-era Germany, the young girl Krysta copes with her mother's sudden death and her father's job working next door at the "infirmary." He comes home from work each day and immediately washes his hands. Soon enough, however, her life takes an even more tragic twist, and she's left with nothing more than her imagination as company.

Coincidentally with the time of year, "Gretel and the Dark" is an excellent book to read around Halloween (I wouldn't be surprised if the holiday was taken into consideration when the publishing date was determined). Lilie is a little creepy, just because you don't know quite who she is or where she came from. In addition, Granville's decision to write from Krysta's perspective also lends an eerie quality through out the story. She tells it like she sees it, even if she doesn't know exactly what she's describing. For example, on one occasion she visits the infirmary with her father and sneaks out of the place he set aside for her to play. She peeks around a corner and sees her father washing his hands "with red paint."

Intermixed in both of these stories are implications of Nazi control. It's not necessarily clearly defined right away, but the Anti-Semitism in the story is relatively accurate, and adds a historical touch that almost heightens the fictional elements of the story. Because of what we know of Nazi Germany, we may believe that certain elements of the story might hold more validity than we'd otherwise like to believe.

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