Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

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Review by Hayley Anderton

When I started reading this book I was a little ambivalent about it. I was attracted by the promise of a fairy tale but also wary of it, and very wary of the setting. Granville touches on the reason for this in the last few pages when she has her heroine acknowledge that the world grows weary of others’ pain and grief. It’s a sad truth but there does come a point when compassion and outrage dwindle into something like weariness with the whole awfulness of something you can’t actually do anything about. In the end Granville put paid to my cynicism and completely won me over – that’s how good she is!

Initially there are two stories being told. One is set in Vienna in 1899 and centres around a young woman called Lilie. She’s been found naked and battered on some wasteland, claims to have no name, no memory, no feelings – she is a machine (Granville references Hoffman’s “Der Sandmann” early in Lilie’s story, it’s a while since I read it but I remember it being terrifying, and mention of it sets a definite tone for the book that follows). Lilie has been taken to the home of Dr Josef Breuer; Breuer was an early mentor of Freud (although the two later fell out and Freud did his best to discredit the older man). Much of what Granville writes about Breuer is based on his actual life and this too is an interesting decision for the book. Fictional is Breuer’s young servant Benjamin; it’s Benjamin who brings Lilie into the house and Benjamin who is sent out to learn more about the mysterious girl despite an ever growing danger to his person. Vienna it seems is undergoing one of it’s anti-Semitic convulsions.

In between the story of Lilie, Josef, and Benjamin there is the story of Krysta. Krysta is a young girl whose father works in the infirmary with ‘animal people’. Krysta isn’t a particularly likeable child. Her mother has died, she’s horribly spoilt, both she and her father clearly have issues to deal with, and before long things are about to get worse for her. Krysta’s father dies and it seems a concentration camp is no place to expect compassion for a difficult child, so she ends up on the inside.

The housekeeper in Krysta’s childhood home was a teller of fairy tales. Dark un-bowdlerised versions of the brothers Grimm, or at least Grimm like tales. Krysta is damaged, first by her mother’s suicide, then by the odd life she’s living on the edge of the camp and a growing awareness of what’s going on around her, and finally by all the things that happen when she’s on the other side of the fence. She’s a deeply flawed character, extremely hard to like. To deal with her surroundings she tells stories over and over again, but they change a little with each telling. Hansel and Gretel is a favourite, and with hindsight it took me longer than I would have thought to get the whole point of that story and to question why Krysta keeps telling it – there’s a different reason every time but after a few tellings it made me question how much she knows of the nature of the place from the very beginning, but then there’s a lot about Krysta which is unclear.

It’s clear from the beginning that there must be a link between the two narratives and slowly Granville reveals what it is. It’s not entirely what I was expecting but it is the point where I was completely sold on the book. I’ve seen it reviewed as children’s/young adult fiction which surprised me, it didn’t feel like a book specifically intended for younger readers despite the age of the protagonists (although Krysta’s age is never explicitly stated, and neither is the time span of the action, I’m assuming she’s still in her early teens by the end of the story). On the other hand the quite adult themes, the way story telling and fairy tales are used, and then the factual elements from Breuer’s life make something that too young a reader could struggle with.

I said It was the fairy tale element that attracted me in the first place, and it’s the use of fairy tales that make this something special. Granville takes her stories and repeats them, twisting them each time in a way that pulled me further into her world. Each repetition adds another layer of meaning and throws up a new set of questions. The fairy tales are organic here, even written down they don’t feel pinned down which in turn is absolutely true to their origins. There’s so much good stuff going on in this book that it’s hard not to give spoilers so I’m just going to say again that I loved it.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Eliza Granville, Gretel and the Dark, (Hamish Hamilton, London, 2014). ISBN 978-0241146460, 368 pp., paperback.

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