At its heart, Gretel and the Dark is a story about stories, and the people who tell them. In this novel, stories give comfort, cause conflict, and provide protection to the teller and the listener. For the reader, this collection of tales bound up into this novel is as dense as the woods in a fairy tale, leading the reader down a dark and twisted path (and possibly longing for pebbles to leave in their wake).
One story begins in Vienna, right before the turn of the twentieth century, when Joseph Bruer, a renowned local psychoanalyst, finds a young woman naked, beaten, and unconscious outside of a lunatic asylum. He brings the woman into his home, and once she is revived, he becomes obsessed with uncovering her story. That story proves to be as mysterious as the woman’s arrival. She claims that she is a mechanical being, with no name, and no past, who has been sent to that time and place to kill a “monster” before it’s too late. Bruer, who is recovering from a case of erotic transference with a former patient, names this strange woman Lillie and becomes as obsessed with her sexually as he becomes with understanding her origins. Bruer’s obsessive quest to understand her story throws his life, and the lives of those into his household, into chaos, as he slowly becomes unhinged by his all-consuming lust for Lillie.
In every other chapter of the book, Lillie’s story shifts to a story told from the point of view of Krysta, a spoiled, wild young girl who lives with her father in northern Germany, some thirty to forty years after Bruer lived in Vienna. Krysta, a fascinating if unreliable narrator, describes her world as only a child can, taking the reader on a bizarre trip through a world almost as fantastical as the ones inhabited by the characters in the ferociously dark fairy tales told to Krysta by her beloved housekeeper (and mother figure) Greet. Greet’s abrupt departure is what begins Krysta’s story, when she and her papa move to a strange house next to a very strange zoo, filled with “animal people” that he performs experiments on that she doesn’t quite understand. A series of tragedies send Krysta to live amongst these animal people, causing her to bear witness to the horrors they endure every day. Krysta keeps herself company by retelling the stories that Greet has told her, both to herself and to the others in this mysterious zoo, as she tries to avoid even greater horrors of her own.
There is one last story that takes place both at the beginning and ending of Gretel and the Dark. At the beginning, two young children, lost in an unforgiving land, broken and starving, trying to survive with only a young girl’s story to keep them alert and awake as they try to delay danger. In the end, it is revealed that the children are Krysta and her young friend Daniel, as they try to make their escape from the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp, which interred mainly women and children of Polish descent during the Holocaust until it was liberated in 1945. It is the first of many reveals that finally give the novel the framing and context required to enrich and weave together all of the threads of stories contained within.
Gretel and the Dark, is a book that takes perseverance and dedication to complete; it’s not a leisurely or fun read by any stretch of the imagination. At times, the reader is left wondering what exactly the point of this unsettling story might be, as Krysta did, listening to one of Greet’s tales. However, fans of complicated narrative structures and unorthodox storytelling styles will be delighted to find both contained in these pages, and might appreciate the fresh perspective on life in Eastern Europe in the earlier part of the twentieth century.