Thursday, January 15, 2015

Gretel and the Dark

Gretel and the Dark
Eliza Granville
4.5 / 5

Published 2014

First Sentence
"It is many years before the Pied Piper comes back for the other children."
Publisher's Description:
A captivating and atmospheric historical novel about a young girl in Nazi Germany, a psychoanalyst in fin-de-si├Ęcle Vienna, and the powerful mystery that links them together.

Gretel and the Dark explores good and evil, hope and despair, showing how the primal thrills and horrors of the stories we learn as children can illuminate the darkest moments in history, in two rich, intertwining narratives that come together to form one exhilarating, page-turning read. In 1899 Vienna, celebrated psychoanalyst Josef Breuer is about to encounter his strangest case yet: a mysterious, beautiful woman who claims to have no name, no feelings—to be, in fact, a machine. Intrigued, he tries to fathom the roots of her disturbance.

Years later, in Nazi-controlled Germany, Krysta plays alone while her papa works in the menacingly strange infirmary next door. Young, innocent, and fiercely stubborn, she retreats into a world of fairy tales, unable to see the danger closing in around her. When everything changes and the real world becomes as frightening as any of her stories, Krysta finds that her imagination holds powers beyond what she could ever have guessed.

Rich, compelling, and propulsively building to a dizzying final twist, Gretel and the Dark is a testament to the lifesaving power of the imagination and a mesmerizingly original story of redemption.

Dear Reader,

A beautiful, haunting, unique book. A fascinating new take on World War II, mixed with the more sinister world of fairy tales (definitely not the Disney brand!).  Gorgeous writing with an ethereal feel to the whole thing, although it is also decidedly rooted in the horrors and everyday realities of WWII. The book alternates storytelling between two very different viewpoints and times: the first being a Viennese psychoanalyst (and those he interacts with) at the end of the 19th century, and the other being a young girl in 1940s Germany. The two stories seem to almost overlap, while at the same time remaining decisively distinct; the reader doesn't learn until the end of the book how the two are related.

I don't have a lot to say about this book; the characters weren't terribly likable, but the story was so beautifully written. It felt like reading a fairy tale. Oh! I did have one thing I wanted to commend the author on: the "translations" were so well done. See, for me, reading a book that throws in a language with which I am unfamiliar (which is all of them, outside of English and French!), while lending the story more color and weight, also makes me feel like perhaps I am missing something important whenever I skim across a foreign word or phrase. However, this author did a wonderful job of guiding the reader to the meaning, working the English equivalent into a character's response, or some other almost invisible echo of the original phrase. I was thoroughly charmed by this whenever I caught the author at it, which was every time a foreign phrase was used (because I always itch to learn its meaning). So, Ms. Granville, well done on that count!

Unrelated but also interesting, here are two wonderful and thought-provoking quotes from the book:
"To take a man's life is not an easy thing--"
"It's the easiest thing in the world," said Lilie. "It's much easier than giving birth. And considerably quicker." 
"It's easy to become a father, but being one is rather harder." (an aphorism)

In this book, I loved how we were able to view Nazi Germany through a child's eyes, one who clearly didn't understand what was going on around her. Krysta made up fantastical stories to explain the strange behavior of those around her, to rationalize what she was experiencing. I also liked how this book circles back not once, but twice upon itself - repeating almost verbatim a few passages so that the reader is brought back full force to the place they began. I enjoyed that odd approach to the old in medias res

A final note: It's easy to think that WWII has already been "done" in every way possible. This book proves that is far from true.


P.S. I am, coincidentally, currently reading two other WWII books which are doing things differently - Code Name Verity and All the Light We Cannot See. More on those soon!

Gretel and the Dark

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  1. I completely agree with you about lack of translations in books, I don't know how many times I feel SO left out when an Author does that. I don't mind it so much when they guide you to a translation without spelling it out. This sounds so intriguing but I need a break from war stories after I finish "All the Light We Cannot See" and "Redeployment".

  2. UNDERSTANDABLE! I am war-booked out for a while, as well! But so much great literature does come from talking about conflict, so it's not wonder we're really getting a lot from those books when we read them! xo


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