Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

Gretel and the Dark One night in 1899, Benjamin discovers a young woman lying on the ground near Vienna’s mental hospital, naked and bruised, and takes her to the home of his employer, the famous psychoanalyst, Dr Josef Breuer. The girl, whom Dr Breuer names Lilie, insists that she is not human, that she’s just a machine. Her mission, she says, is to destroy a monster. The doctor enlists Benjamin’s help in trying to uncover the truth about his young patient, but both men find themselves increasingly drawn to the mysterious Lilie.

Many years later, in Germany, we meet a spoilt and badly behaved little girl called Krysta. She has recently moved house with her father, another doctor, to be nearer his job working with ‘animal people’ at what Krysta believes is a zoo. Krysta’s father is busy with his work, leaving his daughter to entertain herself by remembering the fairy tales she was told by her old nurse, Greet, and making friends with Daniel, a lonely little boy she discovers eating worms in the grounds of the ‘zoo’. When an unexpected tragedy throws Krysta’s life into turmoil, she learns that Greet’s stories can provide an escape from the horrors that are going on around her.

Well, this is proving to be a very difficult book to write about without giving too much away! Gretel and the Dark is one of those books where it is not immediately obvious what is happening. For a long time I was confused. What was the link between the two storylines? Was Lilie a real person or was she a machine, as she claimed? How did she seem to have so much knowledge of the future? And who was Gretel supposed to be?

I think I spent about 300 of the book’s 350 pages trying to figure out the connection between Krysta and Lilie and coming up with theories, most of which were completely wrong. I only started to guess the truth shortly before it was revealed and when everything began to come together in the final chapters of the book, I discovered that the story I had actually been reading was not quite the one I’d thought I was reading!

Despite the allusions to fairy tales and the fact that some of the main characters are children, this is actually a very, very dark novel. Again, I can’t really discuss any of the issues the book raises because it would be best to know as little as possible before starting to read – though I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to say that the place where Krysta’s father works is not really a zoo at all, but something much more sinister. And the fairy tales Krysta recalls throughout the book are not the light, whimsical kind, but the dark and gruesome ones. Hansel and Gretel is one of her favourites and she enjoys using her imagination to push various enemies into the witch’s oven! Later in the book, when something particularly horrible happens to Krysta, another of the tales Greet told her takes on new meaning.

I liked Eliza Granville’s writing but I didn’t find this an easy book to read because some parts of the story were so disturbing and unpleasant. Although it was not a book I could describe as ‘enjoyable’ it was certainly very clever and unusual…and I can almost guarantee you’ll still be thinking about it long after reaching the final page.

Thanks to Penguin Ireland for the review copy.

12 thoughts on “Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

  1. Alex says:

    I’ve seen a number of reviews of this work over the past week and they’ve all had the same problem with discussing it without giving too much away. I shall have to get round to reading it at some point if only because so many of my ex-students wrote dissertations on the way in which fairy tales surface in remarkable different guises. And, of course, many of the original tales were very gruesome indeed. It is only in more recent years that we have felt the need to tidy them up for nice neat Victorian sensitivities.

  2. Lark says:

    As long as the author doesn’t get too graphic I’m okay with a little dark in a book…and this story certainly sounds intriguing. I like books where you can’t guess the end from the beginning. (As long as I read something lighter and happier in between.)

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you’re intrigued, Sam. I wish I could have gone into more detail in my review as the book does raise a lot of interesting discussion points, but I didn’t want to spoil the surprises for future readers!

  3. Charlie says:

    I guess the first thought that comes to mind about the connection is too easy, then! I like the fairytale aspect but I’m not sure about the rest! Well done on What’s In A Name, you’re another who has beat me already so I should probably get to work on my own list…

    • Helen says:

      Thanks – I still have two categories to go, and while I have some books in mind for the position of royalty category, I have no idea what I’m going to read for the element of weather!

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