Gretel and the Dark

It's a curious feeling when a book grows on you.  Not literally, obviously.  That would be downright out of this world and you better bet I'd be callin' Ghostbusters!

I mean that strange kind of peace that you find after you struggle against a narrative, initially.  It doesn't matter why--any reason will do, or no reason at all.  It's not what you thought it would be, you don't like the narration style, you think it's overdone (I like my hamburgers medium, thanks), or you just don't think it's "your thing."  But something tells you to keep reading.  Keep trying.

The more I read, and the more I read because of my job, the less guilt I feel about not finishing a book.  My time is limited, and it is precious.  At the beginning, I wanted to quit Gretel and the Dark.  It didn't deal as much in fairy tales as I had hoped, and the self-indulgent whimperings of a sexually-frustrated psychologist in fin-de-siècle Vienna didn't exactly scream "Read me!"

Maybe it was the utterly gorgeous writing of Granville that won me over.  She manipulates words like a master, and her characters are fully realized.  Before I realized what had happened, I was deep within the story, hungrily eating it up, and wondering exactly how the two narratives fit together.  I won't spoil that for you.  You get to find that out on your own, and delight in it.

I cannot say that Gretel and the Dark is a story about X.  It's a story of many things, of many layers.  This would be an excellent companion to The Book Thief--not just because of the setting, but because of its unusual way of exploring World War II.

The aforementioned psychiatrist, Josef Breuer (ha!  It's not Freud!) treats a young woman who was found naked and senseless.  She is exceedingly pretty, but she looks strange--definitely not a woman of fashionable Viennese society.  Her blond curls are cropped, and she has numbers inked into the skin of her arm.  She claims to be an automaton, with no human feelings, no family, no past, and no future.  She gives no name, so Breuer names her Lilie.  He's obsessed with her and wants her as a lover, but at the same time, Breuer is ashamed of his age and his desires.  Seeing Lilie gradually open up to his assistant, Benjamin, tortures him.

The narrative begins to alternate with that of Krysta, an exceedingly spoiled young girl who's recently moved with her father to a new house next to a zoo ... or so the adults tell her.  Krysta must be read to be believed--her temper is a rare thing.  She torments her nursemaids, rules her father, and eventually sneaks in to see the animal people living in the zoo.  The ones her father treats.  The ones with shaved heads and tattoos.  The rabbits of Sachsenhausen.

In Sachsenhausen lives a boy named Daniel.  Krysta first encounters him while he eats worms.  Being the nasty little brat she is, she torments him for it, and mocks him for not eating real food.  Little Princess is so oblivious that she can't see starvation under her very nose.  Just like the traditional fairy tales that her old nursemaid used to tell her, however, Krysta's path becomes very dark indeed.

I have to stop here, for to continue would be to unravel for you what you must find on your own.  It's a narrative trail of breadcrumbs (yes, of course I had to go there) that will lead you to a stunning conclusion.  Gretel and the Dark is very close to modern literary perfection.

Bonus: My weak German got a boost from all of the phrases sprinkled liberally throughout the book, which made me feel smarter than I actually am.

I received an ARC of this title, on which this review is based.


Popular Posts