Published by Hamish Hamilton
Publication date: February 6th 2014
Genres: Childhood, Debut, Fiction, Historical
Unless you’re reading a book of short stories it is unusual to get more than one scary plot in a single novel, but that is exactly what happens in Eliza Granville’s debut novel Gretel and the Dark. There is Lilie, the beautiful young patient of Dr. Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud’s mentor. She is found beaten, abused and with her head shaved. She only speaks when ordered and claims she is not a human but is a machine created to kill a “monster”. Krysta is a little girl of school age but she does not attend school. Instead she and her father have moved to a new home after her mother’s suicide. There Krysta is coddled by her father, a doctor who she thinks works in a “zoo” filled not with animals but with “people-animals”. Krysta is never allowed to go there but spends her days willfully misbehaving and generally acting like an unhinged person when she doesn’t get her way.
Lilie’s story is set in 1899 Vienna and Krysta’s in the 1940s at Ravensbrück, a German concentration camp for women and children. Both of their stories unfold in a way surreal and all-too-real. Breuer, in his efforts to help Lilie tries to get her to talk about her past but her replies are either cryptic or nonsensical—telling him he must help her to save “your beloved descendants’ from terrible misfortune” and that butterflies are flowers. Krysta thinks everything she sees (including all that she is not supposed to see) is a fairytale. This is due in part to her closest companion being the housekeeper who tells her the most gruesome of Grimm’s fairytales—only those that involve children being hunted, killed, eaten, tortured—in an effort to make her behave and do as she is told. When her father is found dead there are no relatives to take Krysta and her family’s lineage comes to light, meaning that she now joins the people-animals.
Initially, there seems to be no relationship between the lives of Lilie and Krysta but as their stories unfold events, names and places tug at the reader’s mind as being familiar. Granville goes even further by mixing the very real worlds of 1890s Vienna, psychoanalysis, and the Holocaust with Grimm’s fairytales, making the novel one that grips and shakes the reader from beginning to end. The astonishing amount of detail in Gretel and the Dark can mean that without being well-versed on one of the subjects the full impact of various scenes is lost. This is a small price to pay for a novel that overflows with mystery and emotion in a way that upends all preconceived notions and perceptions. Like so many fairytales nothing is what it seems and attention must be paid for the greatest rewards.
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