When we read the classic tales of good versus evil, it is natural to identify with the victor, especially if that character is an underdog. Of course, anybody can do this with any story. The NRA recently released some fairy tale rewrites featuring such groan-worthy updates as a shotgun-wielding grandmother in “Little Red Riding Hood.” Before reading Eliza Granville, I did not know that the Nazis made their own fairy tale propaganda films, targeted at children, often placing Hitler in the role of rescuer. Gretel and the Dark is inspired in part by the Third Reich’s appropriation of this art form as an expression of nationalism. Granville’s heroine is a child who lives under the Nazi regime and uses these classic tales to make sense of her nightmare.
This ambitious novel, bolstered by fairy tale themes and plot lines, is composed of two narratives. The first is set in Vienna in 1899, where we follow the exploits of Joseph Breuer, a real life physician who made the first forays into what would come to be known as psychoanalysis. When the novel opens he has acquired a new patient, a beautiful woman he names Lilie, who refuses to discuss her origins but appears to have suffered a trauma. There is one topic she is willing to discuss: she keeps referring to some monster she must destroy before he can do damage. Who is Lilie? Where did she come from? And what is happening in the Vienna, violent and anti-Semitic, that holds the answer to her secret?
The second narrative, told in the voice of a motherless little girl named Krysta, takes place in Nazi Germany. The horrors she endures are filtered through a child’s consciousness and stitched together with actual fairy tales, many of them recognizable to the modern reader, others specific to German culture, and some fabricated for this book. The Krysta sections of the novel are a remarkable achievement: evocative and seamless, mysterious yet eerily familiar, and as satisfyingly horrific as any Grimm tale. Krysta and her father have recently moved into a big house with a garden that would seem idyllic but for the fact that her father has come here to work in a strange, unnamed hospital based on the infamous Ravensbrück concentration camp. In this place, with the help of a series of menacing female figures, he struggles to raise the willful Krysta. Her preferred caregiver, a girl named Greet, is physically absent but lives on through the tales she once told her young charge.
Gretel and the Dark is primarily about storytelling, how it helps us to survive terrible ordeals while ensuring that our dark times are never forgotten. As explained by Hanna, an important character Krysta meets after she has lost everything, storytelling is a way to prevent erasure:
“‘[S]oon I shall go from here and everything that I have seen or heard, felt, smelled, tasted, enjoyed, loved, will be extinguished and forgotten. There will be nothing left of me but a number on some ledger. And so, I give the Earth my memories.’ She laughs. ‘It’s my talking cure.’”
I won’t disclose the connection between Lilie and Krysta. I spent much of the novel trying to figure out how these two narratives, and these two heroines, could possibly come together. At first I was convinced that Krysta grows up to become Lilie, despite the fact that 1899 Vienna comes before Nazi Germany. The resolution, a magical meta-fictive spell, nearly brought me to tears. Gretel and the Dark is an homage to the fairy tale genre, a highly sophisticated work of historical fiction, and an important contribution to Holocaust literature.
Originally published in 2014, this novel is now available as a Riverhead Books paperback.