Eliza Granville’s Gretel and the Dark combines magical realism and historical fiction to offer a unique perspective on the Holocaust. The book opens in a fairy tale forest with a young woman, a young man and “the Shadow” running from a black magician. After this prologue, the story unfolds through two alternating narratives that intermix fairy tale motifs with real-world horrors.
The first narrative takes place in Vienna in 1899. The protagonist is Herr Doktor Josef Breuer, the real-life mentor to Sigmund Freud. Breuer’s famous patient “Anna O.” (later revealed to be Bertha Pappenheim) had a delusion that the doctor had impregnated her (she was not pregnant). In Granville’s version, rumors of an improper relationship caused a rift between Breuer and his wife. As a result, he returns without his family from a summer vacation.
A mysterious girl soon comes under his care She has a shaved head and numbers tattooed on her arm, and claims to be a machine. When she can’t or won’t remember her name, he calls her “Lilie.” Breuer suspects that Lilie has escaped from the Theleme club, a den of debauchery in which wealthy men hold women as sex slaves. Breuer sends his servant Benjamin to investigate. Benjamin (who, like Breuer, is Jewish) runs up against the xenophobia and anti-Semitism emerging in the declining years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As Lilie recovers, both Breuer and Benjamin begin to see her as a fairy tale princess and compete for her affection.
The second narrative takes place in Nazi Germany. The protagonist is Krysta, a troubled young girl whose mother committed suicide. Her father is a doctor haunted by the horrible experiments he is compelled to perform on concentration camp inmates. Krysta’s odd behavior and her mother’s history of mental illness raise the risk that she will be committed to the very “hospital” where her father works. She also faces the threat of her father’s friend, “Uncle” Hraben, who has taken an unhealthy interest in the child.
Krysta consoles herself with memories of her old housekeeper, Greet. There are hints that Greet is Margarete Schiff, the real-life daughter of Josef Breuer who died in a concentration camp, as did granddaughter Hanna Schiff, who also might be a character in the novel. Greet served as a mother figure and entertained Krysta with fairy tales that never ended the same way twice. These remembered stories provide solace as Krysta’s world grows ever darker.
Gretel and the Dark’s juxtaposition of fairy tales and fascism draws immediate associations with Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). As in that film, Granville’s use of a child protagonist at time mutes and at other times amplifies the horrors of totalitarianism. Krysta’s naivety occasionally strained credibility for me. I don’t believe a child, no matter how innocent, could catch a glimpse of a concentration camp and not sense that something truly awful was going on there. Moreover, Krysta comes off more as a spoiled brat than a traumatized child, and this continues even after the realities of the Holocaust become apparent to her.
But on the whole, the novel is a brilliant debut by a talented writer. Granville weaves her storylines together into a satisfying denouement. Actions in one plotline invariably echo in the other. The use of fairy tales is significant, as they both transcend ethnic/religious lines (Jewish Greet passes them on to “Aryan” Krysta) but also serve as fuel for Nazi propaganda (a version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” in which the Piper is depicted as stereotypical Jewish).
Gretel and the Dark is a frightening but ultimately uplifting modern fairy tale.