Review published on February 25, 2014.Reviewed by Marleen Kennedy
“‘Yes, life is hard,’ whispers Erika, ‘but knowing about other people, other civilizations, other ways of living, other places – that’s your escape route, a magical journey. Once you know about these things, no matter what happens, your mind can create stories to take you anywhere you want to go.’”
Vienna, 1899. When Benjamin finds a thin, naked and injured young woman he brings her to his employer, the celebrated psychoanalyst Joseph Breuer. The girl claims to have no name and no feelings. In fact she insists she is an automaton without feelings, on a mission to kill a monster before it grows too big. Dr. Breuer is intrigued and decides to find out who the girl is and how she ended up in the dishevelled state she was found in. It is a mission that will put young Benjamin in terrible danger.
Years later in Germany young Krysta is trying to make sense of her life. Her mother has killed herself and when her father is ordered to work in an infirmary with the ‘animal people’ she finds herself all but abandoned by everybody who has ever cared for her. When her father dies as well, Krysta is dropped into a nightmare. Her only escape comes in the form of stories and fairytales; those she’s been told over the years, those she tells herself and those she hears from the people she’s forced to live among now. It is Krysta’s imagination that gives her the strength to keep going; that will make survival possible for her and Daniel, the boy she meets in the middle of hell.
Two stories that appear to have little or nothing to do with each other until suddenly they do and create a magical ending.
This is one of those breathtaking books that have you wondering what it is you are reading until the moment when all is revealed and you know you’ve just read something amazing. This is a truly original story that will break your heart only to put it back together again and leave you feeling uplifted and enchanted.
When I’d read the first 100 pages in this book I still had absolutely no idea what exactly the story was about or where it might be going. I was also completely engrossed in the narrative. The writing is smooth and very descriptive and draws the reader into a world that doesn’t appear to be real and yet is painted so clearly it almost glows off the pages. It is like seeing something from the corner of your eye only to have it disappear when you turn to look at it straight on.
It is impossible not to get caught up in the two stories. Poor Krysta’s life is so filled with pain, loss and lack of compassion it breaks your heart and makes you want to cheer for the bad mannered girl who refuses to allow the uncaring adults around her to bully her. The story of the girl found in Vienna on the other hand, feels more like a fairytale; a magical but rather dark fantasy.
There are recognisable connections between the two stories almost from the start, but nothing prepared me for the revelation of how they were connected. For me, it was nothing short of brilliant. And that is all I can say about it without spoiling the extra-ordinary reading experience this book gives the reader.
For me personally this book holds an added bonus. Some of the books described in Gretel and the Dark are titles I recognise from when I grew up in Holland. I devoured the Winnetou and Old Shatterhand stories by Karl May when I was a teenager and the book of instructional tales for children described here is one that could be found on the shelves in my childhood home. I’ll never forget that story about the girl who played with matches and was surprised and delighted to find it referenced here.
This is a book about stories and fairytales. About the power of words and the magic that allows us to use our fantasy to deal with the things life will throw at us. This is a story about love and what it is capable of. This book will enthral you long before you know what the story is about and will keep you thinking for days after you’ve finished reading it. This is a book for everybody who loves stories and reading.
Gretel and the Dark is nothing short of an amazing reading experience.