Friday, 21 March 2014

Gretel and the Dark - Book Review

Gretel and the Dark
by Eliza Granville

Published Feb 6th 2014, Penguin Books UK

Vienna, 1899. Josef Breuer - celebrated psychoanalyst - is about to encounter his strangest case yet. Found by the lunatic asylum, thin, head shaved, she claims to have no name, no feelings - to be, in fact, not even human. Intrigued, Breuer determines to fathom the roots of her disturbance.

Years later, in Germany, we meet Krysta. Krysta's Papa is busy working in the infirmary with the 'animal people', so little Krysta plays alone, lost in the stories of Hansel and Gretel, the Pied Piper, and more. And when everything changes and the real world around her becomes as frightening as any fairy tale, Krysta finds that her imagination holds powers beyond what she could have ever guessed... (Synopsis from Goodreads)


Part fairytale, part historical fiction, part harrowing story of Nazi concentration camp survivors, and part... something else. It’s quite hard to pin this book down as any one thing, as it weaves many different strands together, and until the end it is often quite hard to say which parts are really happening. I loved this; I was kept constantly surprised and was never quite sure what to expect next. I loved how the different stories and timelines mirrored each other, even the little snippets of fairytales that Greet and Krysta relate. I loved the darkness that crept through from the fairy stories into the other narratives, and vice versa, and the way the stories the characters told each other seemed to have a strange ability to affect reality (something that is emphasised even more by the end of the book).

This isn’t a fairytale re-writing though. Stories wind their way through the book, sometimes obscuring and sometimes revealing a little more of the real characters and the truth under all the stories. This is very effective, as the main character has obviously been through something so terrible that she has to almost dance around it, dipping in and out, winding magic and stories around it in order to be able to face it. At points it is almost as though the reader must slash through a forest of thorns made up of stories, like a protective layer, in order to get to the heart of the book. The darkness under the surface of most fairytales lends itself well to this, and we’re reminded that real life can be just as horrible, and that monsters really do exist. The ending finally pulls all these strands and themes together.

I have to admit that the ending at first came as a bit of a blow to me. When I began to see what was really happening I was disappointed; the book was strange, and seemed to be pulling towards something very unique and dramatic. This sudden change in direction, though not unexpected, was not what I was personally hoping for. It’s hard to explain without giving away spoilers, but it’s the kind of revelation that could perhaps spoil the book for certain readers. However, by the end of the book I came to really appreciate the ending for it was doing. The author is saying something about the power of stories and fairytales, and about memory and the truth we construct for ourselves.

I do wish that this could have been achieved without dropping one storyline so suddenly; some of the mysteries and developments in it felt a little pointless because of this, and could have been woven in better. The ending also unfortunately made a lot of the tension of this part of the story irrelevant, which was slightly frustrating when looking back. If you fear for a character and then find out that they were never in any real danger, or not the kind you thought they were in, it can sometimes cheapen the whole thing. Thankfully, this is not the major criticism that it sounds like it might be, as all the stories and characters tangled together in this book are connected in a way that allows for a satisfying end. There is a lot going on here that is very clever, and it is a captivating read from beginning to end.

As well as an intricate and interesting structure, the book is overflowing with absolutely beautiful writing, creating a strange, magical and disturbing atmosphere that fits the plot so perfectly. The author’s characters are larger than life, like fairytale characters, but they are also believable and flawed and fascinating. There is plenty of humour running through the book too, which is important in a story that doesn’t shy away from themes such as prejudice and selfish obsession, and the terrible realities of atrocities in Nazi camps. The beauty and the magic of the book contrast startlingly with its brutality, just as in many fairytales. This is a very well written and constructed book.

So, perhaps not quite what I expected and perhaps not quite the ending I was hoping for, but in spite of that, probably the right ending for this book. A fascinating and beautiful read and definitely recommended, especially for those readers like me who love fairytales and really believe in the power of stories.

I won a copy of this book on Goodreads, but was not required to write a positive review. Thanks to Penguin for sending a copy. :-)

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