Published by Hamish Hamilton on February 6th 2014
A dark, distinctive and addictively compelling novel set in fin-de-siècle Vienna and Nazi Germany—with a dizzying final twist.
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 world around her becomes as frightening as any fairy tale, Krysta finds her imagination holds powers beyond what she could have ever guessed. . . .
Eliza Granville has had a life-long fascination with the enduring quality of fairytales and their symbolism, and the idea for Gretel and the Dark was sparked when she became interested in the emphasis placed on these stories during the Third Reich.
Prior to reading Gretel and the Dark, I had read numerous reviews, all of which were extremely positive with reviewers ranting and raving about how awesome this book was. Needless to say, I had very high expectations as a result. A lot of other reviewers emphasised how this story is an adaption of the fairytale Hansel and Gretel and the title would certainly make you believe that, but the plot is actually so much more complex than that. Whilst there are indeed many fairytales mentioned, their significance does become apparent until the end of the novel, and the story of Hansel and Gretel is not the only fairytale that features in this novel. Not only that, but this story is also a subtle look at the oppression of the jews in the build up to the World Wars, something that wasn’t at all apparent to me until I read that in someone else’s review. This theme becomes a bit clearer as the novel goes on, but I think these references are so subtle that the average reader would miss them if they haven’t been forewarned.
I have to admit that whilst I had high hopes for this novel, the book did not live up to expectations for me. It’s taken me over a month to read the entire story as I didn’t really have any motivation to carry on reading. Although the story is interesting and very well written, I found it very hard to get into and I never really felt like the plot was actually going anywhere. I kept hoping that the novel would pick up and the story would become clearer but, unfortunately, I still felt this way at the end of the novel. That’s not to say that this story is boring or that there weren’t moments when I was really into it, because there were, I just didn’t feel like there was an overall movement towards some sort of finale, but instead it seemed as the majority of the novel was just setting up the world the characters were living in.
I think one of the main reasons I couldn’t really get into this novel is because the two alternating plot strands seemed completely unrelated for a large portion of the book. It is only towards the end of the novel that you begin to see how the two stories may fit together and how the fairytale is relevant to the story. Krysta turns from an annoying brat to someone with an extraordinary imagination but I feel like there were certain gaps in her development and I could probably think of Krysta as a different person at each of the defining moments of her story. This is a shame because her story really is fascinating and I just wish I fully understood it. Lillie’s story seemed to have much more a focus than Krysta’s and yet it didn’t fulfil this in the end. A lot of her story was spent trying to figure out who she is, where she’d come from and what her purpose is but I think this got a bit lost with all the other characters’ stories around her.
There is a sort of plot ‘twist’, or rather a great revealing, towards the end of the novel, but it was all just a little too late in my opinion. I will admit that said ‘twist’ was extremely clever and I definitely appreciated the ingenuity of the author in how she had constructed and written her story; however, this revelation did not actually clarify a lot of the story’s events for me. I have a vague understanding of how the two stories are related, but I’m still very sketchy on the details and to be honest, if someone asked me to explain the plot to them right now, I’m not sure I could do a particularly good job.
As I said, this is extremely well written story and the language that is used is complex and compelling and very, very dark, however, there was something that just didn’t quite mesh together in this novel. There were so many brilliant elements to this novel, but I couldn’t connect them all which left me feeling like there were bits and pieces of brilliance floating in a river that I was trying to cross, but none of them were coming together to form a bridge for me to do so safely. This is a shame because the writing is really is very, very good, so good and complex, in fact, that I would say that this is more an adult book than a young adult book. The darker themes that are explored also make this book more appropriate for adult or mature teen readers. My only criticism of the writing would be that a few too many phrases were in untranslated German to the point where I was sometimes really frustrated that I didn’t know what people were saying to each other. There was literally no way for me to figure out what the characters were saying which left me in the dark which I think was more a negative thing than a brilliant stylistic device.
All in all, Gretel and the Dark is a so-so book that had the potential to be phenomenal. I am definitely in the minority when it comes to Gretel and the Dark as most people who read this book were completely taken with it, giving it four or five stars, but I really didn’t connect with the story at all. Perhaps I missed a trick whilst reading it or something, but I am still so confused about so many things about this story which is incredibly frustrating. One of my main problems with this novel is that I am still in the dark about what was real and what was imaginary. In addition, what I thought was going to be the main ‘plot’, was not fulfilled at the end of the novel, at least I don’t think it was, which leaves me wondering – what was the point? I’d probably still recommend Gretel and the Dark though I’d recommend reading it very thoroughly and carefully to avoid ending up incredibly confused, as I am now.
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