Tuesday, 20 May 2014 | MYT 7:00 AM

Gretel and The Dark

  • Author : Eliza Granville
  • Genre : Fiction
  • Publisher : Hamish Hamilton/Penguin


Dark twin tales

FAIRYTALES were dark in origin, with macabre and gruesome details.

Sleeping Beauty? Wasn’t woken up with a kiss by a heroic prince, but rather when the babies she conceived after being raped while unconscious sucked out the wooden sliver that knocked her out originally.

Snow White? Again, wasn’t woken up by true love’s kiss, but rather when the bit of apple stuck in her throat was dislodged as the prince moved her glass coffin after begging the dwarves for her. Some versions say it was after he fell in love with her at first sight, others imply a more lustful agenda.

But Hansel and Gretel is one of those fairytales that have retained its fairly grisly tone, what with parents abandoning their children, cannibalism, and murder committed by children.

That tone is carried over into this debut novel by Eliza Granville.

Gretel And The Dark starts off with a fairytale-like prologue, which invokes the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but also has two abandoned children (along with a Shadow) a la Hansel and Gretel.

But then the first chapter segues into 1899 Vienna, where we meet psychoanalyst Dr Josef Breuer (based on the real-life mentor to Dr Sigmund Freud), who has just returned from his summer home to escape his nagging wife and loveless marriage.

He is currently housing and treating a Jane Doe who had been discovered unconscious and naked on the streets of Vienna by his servant Benjamin’s brother.

The young girl, whom he names Lilie, claims to be an automaton, but soon arouses some very human feelings within both Dr Breuer and Benjamin.

Dr Breuer, who has had a questionable relationship with another female patient in the past, suspects that Lilie might be linked to a “gentleman’s club” called the Thélème that is reputed to be a den of perverse sexual activity. This belief is reinforced when Lilie insists that she is on a mission to kill a “monster”.

But this is just one part of the novel.

Dr Breuer, Lilie and Benjamin’s story are intercut with another story set later in Nazi Germany during World War II. Here, we are introduced to young Krysta, who has just lost her mother. Her father, a doctor, moves her away from their home and her nurse, Greet, for a job that will help “keep her safe” – a job involving “animal people” kept in a zoo, scientific “progress”, and a lot of guilt expressed in compulsive hand-washing.

Naturally, Krysta is unhappy, and her spoilt brat attitude, along with her preoccupied father, doesn’t make it any easier for her to adapt to her new surroundings. Greet, although not physically present, pops up very frequently in Krysta’s memories, especially in her recollection of the gruesome tales Greet liked to tell.

These tales, along with her doll, Lotte, help Krysta cope when her life is turned upside down in a way she could never have imagined.

That the two stories are linked is obvious; the question is, how are they related?

Is this a science fiction novel involving time-travel and machines, or an intergenerational story, involving unexpected links between the characters in both tales, or something else altogether? I can tell you that the answer came as a surprise to me – slightly improbable, but understandable.

But the payoff in reading this book is more than the ending and resolution. Granville writes well, and the stories are fairly absorbing, with characters that draw you in.

But be warned that this is a dark story, with hints of hidden desire and sexual perversions, of how inhuman man can be, and what people do just to survive.

If you have a thing for macabre stories – fairy tales or otherwise – then this is the book for you. Similarly, if you wish to read a more fantastical and personalised take on the Third Reich, then this is the book for you.

Not for the faint of heart.


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