Gretel and the Dark

There is something dark and twisted about fairy tales, especially Grimm’s fairy tales set in a land beset by superstition and strict social rules. Eliza Granville’s Gretel and the Dark takes these tales and twists them into Austria’s dark past, forming a chilling and sobering tale of the last days of the Third Reich. Nothing is set in stone, and you are only just aware of the war that is raging through the country, the punishing rules and questionable research that is sweeping through the once upstanding medical community. And the way Granville subtly entwines the country’s folklore, gathered together by the Grimm brothers, into one girl’s unspeakable nightmare as she is orphaned and incarcerated, is harrowing.

Loosely reminiscent in places of Jan Martell’s Life of Pi, nevertheless Gretel and the Dark is a completely different creature. Its gothic overtones, the spoilt domestic youth of the protagonist Krysta contrasting with the harsh, clinical nature of the camp and the intellectually isolated and almost delusional nature of one of Vienna’s rising psychoanalysts slowly pulls you into what seems like a drug-fueled nightmare. You don’t know what is real and what isn’t and I think that cleverly mirrors Krysta’s journey and struggle for survival. There are two main narrative strands to the novel which alleviates the darkness but also adds to the tension which, although at times confusing, comes together neatly as the story unfolds. We alternate between Krysta’s reality and a Vienna set 20 years earlier, between the harsh clinical ‘zoo’ and the genteel drawing room and study of a self-important doctor whose infatuation for a beautiful patient threatens to destroy his reputation.

Gretel and the Dark has been compared to Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s hellish vision of Franco’s Spain as well as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I’ve only seen the film versions of both, but Granville’s addition of the fairy tales as Krysta’s lifeline to hope is what makes this book a success. It once again brings to the fore one of the most chilling periods of the 20th century. There is no sympathy here. Krysta herself is a spoilt, unruly brat with a weak-willed father. Everything the adults do is in the background, whispered and conspired, as Krysta is concerned only with her wellbeing. And yet, her punishment is far harsher than anyone deserves.

What makes this novel even more frightening is that all the violence occurs just off the pages. We don’t see it first hand but Granville makes sure we know what’s coming and the devastating aftermath without any graphic descriptions. Just the reactions of the characters. And it’s enough.

Gretel and the Dark is a frightening tale. It’s disturbing, darkly gothic and you can’t escape the witches and demons; just like in Grimm’s fairy tales, just like Krysta. And it’s the sudden appearance of Granville’s beautifully visual sentences amidst the horror that throws you off course. It’s vivid, rich and darkly hypnotic. Although some readers may find that Granville ties it all up too conveniently, I thought she did it just right, balancing despair and hope pretty much evenly.

Do also check out Hayley’s review of the book.

Thank you very much to Penguin Books who kindly sent me a copy of Gretel and the Dark to review.