Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

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Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Two linked tales of girls in different corners of Europe in different corners of the 20th century. It’s not perfect but it has so much ambition in its pages it does come up trumps in the end.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: January 2014
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 9780241146453

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Josef Breuer has never had a case such as this. For a doctor in fin-de-siecle Vienna, spurned by his ex-colleague Sigmund, and with some dark happenings in his marriage and his past, he gets as a patient a young, damaged girl, found naked and battered outside an asylum. She claims she has never come from there, however, and that she is of no father or mother besides a purpose. She says she is a machine, an automaton, a beautiful kind of golem, with the task of going to Linz and killing a monster. She has an unusual number design at her wrist. This story alternates with that of another young girl, a very impetuous and belligerent child, now that her favourite nanny-come-nurse-come-cook-come-storyteller has been drummed out, and living alone with her father, again a doctor, outside a zoo. But a zoo that doesn't strictly hold animals, nor allows for their conservation…

It really strikes one as intriguing that you can reduce this very literary and literate debut novel to the summary The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas meets The Terminator, with a very Germanic flavour to it all. But such is the bare core of the book, and I don't want to say that to denigrate – I think it worthwhile stating as something that alerts you to how surprising this book can be. Such a rarefied case of reductio ad absurdum is nothing if not eye-opening.

The stories of the two girls alternate their fairly lengthy chapters, until slowly you see the tiniest of linked details. I think I got the gist of the major connection from one to the other too quickly, but I can't be too sure, and I don't think it’s a major problem. They're both very intriguing – the houseboy of Josef Breuer is tasked with finding the truth out about the girl's background for the unbelieving doctor, and finds himself embroiled in both a horrendous bout of anti-Semitism and a bizarre society borrowing from Zola or Schnitzler. The more modern storyline hides its secrets less well – we can easily see the familiar details through the obfuscation of the child's-eye-view, but it still does many welcome, unexpected things – as well as, however, providing us with a couple of very unsavoury elements.

So, to that Germanic feel. It’s there in the near-impenetrable prologue, whereby the unknown characters live according to fairy-tales' rules, and is there from then on, with the salon of the doctor in Vienna and the characters and events in the other side of proceedings. It's there in the title too – despite a slew of white butterflies out of season, the great European forests and all the dangers within are never too far out of reach, and the darkness of a human jungle is only threatened by the bestial, not the pastoral, side of nature.

Added to this is the most literary element of proceedings, that of storytelling. The number of times different fairy tales are evoked, and delivered during some job in the kitchen, is most notable, especially as a later chapter has the constant repetition of the dark part of one of them. Captured princesses, lost siblings, abuse, betrayal – all are in the classic tales the 'zoo' girl hears and learns to equate with her own life, and all have parallels somewhere. There is a horrid witch shoved into an oven for a change. And here is the line Hansel and Gretel were abandoned in the dark forest. But do you know why? Well, I'll tell you – it was the final solution for their parents.

Yes, a regular lack of the ideal subtlety is one of the reasons for this novel not scoring quite as highly as it might. I pick this clunker of a phrase out with the admission that it's by far and away the worst example, but the fact remains that sometimes too broad a stroke is used, and with the opinion that too much of this was guessable, means the response might be 'well, I'm enjoying this, but enough – I get it already!' In that regard I think the book does wear its debut status too broadly – at times the ideas are too great and clever for the execution to match. But ideas and cleverness there are, and they're not to be sniffed at, so I really do think Eliza Granville could be one to watch, and I do think for the right audience this rich, enveloping, Germanic drama could be very welcome indeed.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

For a similarly flavoursome debut with a rich evocation of recent German history and character, we can recommend A Wolf in Hindelheim by Jenny Mayhew.

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