Gretel & the Dark by Eliza Granville
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors.
A young woman is found wandering the woods around Vienna. Naked, bruised, with her hair shorn and numbers tattooed along her arm, she is immediately recognisable as a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. But it’s 1899 and there are, as yet, no concentration camps and the Holocaust that will come to destroy Europe and mark its darkest period has not yet begun. A young stable boy finds the traumatised woman and takes her to his employer, local psychiatrist Josef Breuer, who is certain he can use his famous ‘talking cure’ to work out what has caused young ‘Lilie’ to insist that she is not human, that she is a machine sent from the future to kill a monster who will otherwise change the world irrevocably.
Eliza Granville’s Gretel and the Dark is no 19th Century Terminator, as much as the premise above may seem to indicate. Breuer and his stable boy Benjamin try to establish where Lilie could have come from, primarily suspecting the shady ‘gentleman’s club’ in town, rumoured to house young women trapped there for the pleasure of its members. But “I am not part of the human race,” insists Lilie. “First I was an idea. Then I came into being charged with a very important task.” This task, she repeats, is to kill the monster while he is still young, before he begins on his path of devastation.
Josef, already dejected after his inability to deal with a previous patient’s transference (the famous Anna O, whose treatment helped Breuer’s student Freud lay the groundwork for psychoanalysis), finds himself drawn to Lilie, hoping that she is indeed a woman who has escaped a prison-brothel and will be grateful to find a loving saviour in him. It is not difficult to understand that Lilie’s monster is Hitler, but once again, it is 1899, and while anti-semitism is slowly rearing its ugly head, it is not yet the monstrosity it would become. How does Lilie know what she does about the future? Where has she come from? There are repeated references to Ophelia’s lament “there’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” but Lilie is unable to recall her true story, remembering folk tales instead. There is immense darkness here, under all the fascinating, familiar stories.
As intriguing as Lilie’s story is, what makes it truly resonate are the reflections and shadows it shares with the parallel narrative running alongside hers in Gretel and the Dark. Granville alternates chapters between Lilie and Krysta, a spoilt young girl whose world is turned upside down when her father suddenly moves them away from their home, leaving behind Krysta’s only companion, her young nanny Greet, who is full of “stories for this, stories for that, stories for everything else.” Alone in a big empty house, left to tend to herself with a household staff of unfriendly women, none of whom put up with her antics the way Greet did, Krysta refuses to accept change, insisting on the worst possible behaviour until she drives away her caregivers. Her father spends his days working at the “zoo” where he treats the “animal people.” Krysta isn’t sure what makes them different, but she is told they are “a different kind of beast altogether.”
The “zoo” is probably meant to be Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women in northern Germany, where the primary overseers were female as well. Krysta’s story features a woman called Johanna (records from Nazi Germany show a number of Johanna’s stationed in Ravensbrück as overseers), who attempts superficially to win over the little girl because of her vested interest in Krysta’s father. Johanna’s interest in Krysta does not last long, however, and eventually Krysta is treated just as badly as the “animal people.” Gretel and the Dark is indeed a dark, horrific narrative in many ways, just as most stories about the Holocaust are. But Granville cuts away from a great deal of the violence, hinting at it, letting her readers’ imagination do its worst. “Things so bad I can’t tell you. Things so bad I can’t tell you. Things so bad …”. Krysta’s father is unable to help her, try as he might to protect his child.
Krysta’s narrative is skewed through a child’s eye, and that too, an especially imaginative child. Krysta turns to her memories of Greet’s stories constantly, telling and retelling them to herself, to her doll, adjusting them to feature more violence towards the people she is angry with, fitting adults around her into roles of the witch, the villain, the monster. “My oven is very big,” she says as she tells the story of Hansel and Gretel, going on to push each of the people hurting her into the oven.
Hansel and Gretel being prepared for the witch’s oven takes on a far more morbid meaning when the story is told by a child in a concentration camp and when sending Hansel and Gretel away is called the “final solution.” Krysta’s father may have insisted that “such tales spring from sick imaginations” and that “we have a duty to protect our little ones from hearing about such atrocities,” but he is unable to help Krysta eventually, who retreats into Greet’s stories in order to keep her sanity.
European fairy tales were always gruesome in their original form. They were never meant to be the pastel marshmallow, soft-focus version Disney has fed the last few generations of children. Granville uses the dark depths of the original tales to tell the story of a young woman who survives the darkest of times by recreating her own history, by telling her own story wound up inside the world of gothic fairy tales. Gretel and the Dark is written in a deceptively soft, lush prose, the language disguising sharp, cruel truths. How does a child grow safely past so much agonising cruelty and damage, if not by taking control of her history, if not by recreating her story the way she sees right?