The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Once Upon a Terrible Time (Review: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville)

Gretel and the Dark
Eliza Granville
Penguin 2014

Lilie does not believe that she's human.  She came in to being to kill the monster.  After being found naked and unconscious by the side of a Vienna road, she is taken in by celebrated psychoanalyst Josef Breuer.  She could be his greatest achievement, if only he could figure out who she was and where the hell she came from.  And perhaps if he didn't find her quite so beautiful...

Krysta is bored.  Her Papa works all day at the infirmary for the "animal people" and her housekeeper's incessant storytelling is winding her right up.  Germany is changing around her and people are getting weird.  And the weirder things get, the more important stories become, or at least so her housekeeper says.  But as Krysta's world becomes more frightening and devastating then anything she could have imagined, it may just be those stories that hold the lifeline she so desperately needs.

And this all sounds promising and saucily intriguing but honestly, grown up fairy tales? Again?  I sighed. I have read and watched so much nonsense that attempts to modernise classic fairytales that I was unable to feel anything other than mild dread at the thought of another "strong independent yet glamorous female slays nasty ugly creatures" outing. The fact that I even thought this might be the case with Gretel and the Dark is, frankly, embarrassing.

Firstly, Granville's writing and world building is beautiful. For a debut novel, it truly is extraordinary.  The depth of description of both Lilie's turn of the century Vienna and Krysta's war time Germany is all consuming.  Rarely have I so quickly felt fully absorbed by a world, let alone one based in fact which can often be so poorly painted by authors. Secondly, the characterisation of everyone from Krysta, our main protagonist, to those characters fleetingly mentioned is pitch perfect.  This is a story of perfectly written imperfect characters that we are drawn to for exactly that reason - they are imperfect, they are human.  And they are a reminder that in hard times, people can loose sight of themselves through no fault of their own.  But it is the ease with which Granville entwines the harsh realities of turbulent times with the escapism of the fairytales that we all know and love that is really masterful. At no point does the reader ever lose sight of the fact that the story is not a retelling of a fairytale; fairytale themes and imagery are used throughout to illustrate both escapism and child like innocence but are by no means designed to be a story in their own right. It is this delicate balance that makes Gretel and the Dark something really special.

While I have absolutely no complaints about this book, far from it, I do feel it throws up the much mulled-over question - what makes a young adult book specifically young adult?  If the basis is solely a young adult protagonists, then yes, Gretel and the Dark ticks the box. However, I can't help but think that this may be tough going for some of the younger young adult crowd, both in writing style and in content. The writing is beautiful, fluid and wonderfully vivid but I feel that my 14 year old self, even as an avid reader, may have found it a bit of a turn-off.  And as for the content, while the horrors of the time are described totally appropriately and are at no point gratuitous, there are some pretty dark points in there.  For the younger end of the demographic, there may be an element of parental guidance required with this one - after all, we can't assume that all young adult readers are comfortable with the same themes at the same age.

And yet this is what makes Gretel and the Dark so wonderful. Not only is it a re-imagining of fairytale themes and ideas but it is telling the story of one of the darkest periods in human history through fresh eyes and, I think on the whole, in a capacity that is accessible to younger readers.  Exploring not only the horrors of war and persecution but the power of storytelling and companionship, Gretel and the Dark really is fantastically unusual and wonderfully written.  It has been a long time since a book has so pleasantly surprised me. 

This review was brought to you by Polka-Dot Steph. Thank you to Penguin for sending us this title to review and also for the lollipop which helped deal with at least a little of the traumatisation.  Gretel and the Dark will be published on the 6th of February 2014.

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