Vienna, 1899. Still reeling from the fallout of the erotic transference with a previous patient named Bertha Pappenheim, celebrated psychoanalyst Josef Breuer stumbles across a seemingly baffling case. A beautiful young woman is found unconscious, left as near as dead by the side of the road, there are knife wounds on her neck, she's covered in bruises and her head is crudely shorn. When she regains consciousness she claims she has no past, only making reference to a dark future. Breuer should think of her as an automaton, she says, "I wasn't born. I was created just like this", an idea that sprang into being, "charged with a very important task" – the destruction of the one she calls "the monster".
Naming her Lilie, and assuming her amnesia is the result of abuse suffered at the hands of this "monster" – maybe a husband, father or brother, or perhaps she's escaped from the city's notorious Thélème club, a "latter-day Gomorrah" – the captivated doctor sets out to uncover the truth about her identity, his enquiries catapulting his loyal servant Benjamin into the dangerous backstreets of the city, where "new envies and old hatreds" are bubbling away. But Breuer's growing attraction to the lovely young woman also incites a perilous battle for her heart.
Forty years later, and in a world where those old hatreds and envies have boiled over, we meet Krysta, a spoilt, lonely, motherless child for whom the fairytales told her by her nurse are more real than the strange reality around her. Her father is a physician who experiments on the "animal-people" kept in the "zoo" next door to their house, from which he returns home each evening obsessively washing his hands Lady Macbeth-style. After he dies in mysterious circumstances, Krysta finds herself abandoned in the nightmarish world on the other side of the zoo gates, her only source of comfort the stories she tells her doll Lottie and the other children around her, and so she spins richer and richer tales, "fat, oozing caramelized sugar, bursting with currents and spice".
Apparently inspired by the Third Reich's appropriation of folk and fairytale as ideological weaponry, Gretel and the Dark also draws on the importance of narrative and storytelling in psychoanalysis, and historical figures star alongside fictional creations. Although somewhat overly drawn out in parts, and the eliciting of emotion a little heavy-handed on occasion, overall this is an ambitious and enticing debut.