Author: Eliza Granville
Rating: 4 stars
Gretel and the Dark is a maddening book. It is so tense and original and dark…until it is not. The writing is superb, the characters deft and unsettling, but ultimately I found myself very frustrated with the experience of reading it.
In 1899 in Vienna, a mysterious woman ends up at the home of Dr. Josef Breuer. She claims to be a machine sent to kill a “monster.” Captivated, Josef and his servant Benjamin try to unravel “Lillie’s” secrets, putting them all in danger.
In the 1940s in Ravensbruck, a girl named Krysta navigates an increasingly threatening world by retreating into the fairy tales her old nurse used to spin for her. Initially a spoiled, wild, motherless child, Krysta eventually finds herself an inmate of the “zoo,” where everything changes for her.
These two disparate stories connect in an interesting way. When I first started to figure out what Granville was doing, I got a little shiver down my spine. But it ended up being the biggest failure of an otherwise extraordinary book. Perhaps it all comes down to reader expectations. I wanted a full-on sci-fi concept novel. I wanted a satisfying but impossible moment where Lillie dispatches the “monster” (I’m not going to tell you who he is, but think for a minute and you should be able to figure it out.) Instead I got….metaphor and stories. Gorgeous metaphor and beautiful stories, but it felt to me like this was a book that didn’t go far enough, just didn’t get weird enough when it comes down to it. And then came the last five pages, a final nail in the coffin.
The ending is not bad. It’s just not…right. I won’t get too deep into it, except to say that Krysta, the disturbed and damaged girl whose unusual voice was such a treat throughout her sections, changes dramatically without any actual development in the last five pages, and things are wrapped up very sentimentally and neat.
Authors, I implore you. Give me ambiguity. Leave me unsatisfied because you refused to answer a question, not because you wrapped things up with a tidy bow that lays your narrative flat. If I could cut the last section out of this book, leave it forever open-ended and the weird element entirely unanswerable, I think this would have been a beyond-five-star book for me.
Because it was insanely, ridiculously well written. Granville weaves together a number of fairy tales, digging at their unsettling and disturbing roots. The Pied Piper is here, but so are Hansel and Gretel, and Sleeping Beauty, and the Little Match Girl, and the Frog Prince, and probably plenty of others I could not unpick. This is a slow book, a language-lover’s book, on the sentence level up there as one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is a shame that it fails to stick the landing, but if you are a fairy-tale person, or one for skewed, dark historical fantasy, or just a lover of words, I think you find something to enjoy.
A necessary trigger warning: though the author refers to it exclusively through allusion and metaphor, this book does include the rape of a child. It’s highly unsettling but important.
And one final note. I didn’t know much about the plot or setting when I picked up Gretel and the Dark, but it ended up being the second book I have read this month featuring Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. It’s one of those weird coincidences, but I can tell you this much. My brain does not ever want to go there ever, ever again.