Gretel and the Dark: A Novel, by Eliza Granville, (Riverhead Hardcover), 352 pages, release date 16 October, 2014.
Had I read Eliza Granville’s Gretel and the Dark in 2014 when it was released, it most definitely would have been on my “best of” list. As it is, I think I will probably have to include it on the 2015 list, even though it was released earlier.
Initially, one feels a bit nonplussed by this novel and all it contains. It opens with a retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. The novel then moves on to 1899 Vienna, where a naked, shorn-headed, badly beaten woman with a numerical tattoo on one wrist has been taken in by a psychotherapist who both wants to help her, but also wants to claim the glory he feels he’s deserved, but has never been given. Lilie (the name he gives his new patient) insists that she is a machine, without name or family, who has been sent to turn-of-the century Vienna to kill the monster “Adi” before he becomes too powerful. She warns the psychotherapist that the fate of his own descendants rests upon the success of her mission. After that, the novel takes us to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where we meet young Krysta whose mother has recently committed suicide and whose father works in the facility’s “infirmary.” From that point on, readers move back and forth between the stories of Lilie and Krista.
The mix of fable, what appears to be science fiction, and Holocaust literature is demanding, draining, and seemingly disconnected, but the writing is so compelling that it pulls the reader along, even through this difficult beginning. And as one keeps reading the parallels among the three stories gradually become clearer. Not until then end of the book, though, does the reader fully understand the connections among these these narratives.
Gretel and the Dark contains a great deal of unhappiness and unkindness, but it is not without hope. Hope burns within it like a single, small candle in the middle of the darkness that is the bulk of the novel.
Eliza Granville’s ability to imagine and depict the seemingly unimaginable continually floored me. As I read, I turned the novel’s events over and over in my mind—but I also found myself wondering about the magic of fiction and the power of a truly great writer, who can create an entire world, worlds actually, and make them vivid enough for readers to temporarily live within them.
This is one of those books I know I’ll be returning to every few years both for the merits of the writing and the structure, as well as for the complex reflection it inspires. Buy it in hardback, so it will allow you multiple readings.