Gretel is all grown up but still lost in the wilderness of her own psychology in this acute and eerie reimagining of the classic fairy tale.
Hong's (Age of Glass, 2018) rendering of the iconic story includes all the familiar elements: A faithless father and wicked stepmother abandon two children in an enchanted wood, where they meet a hungry witch in her candy house. The traditional focal point of the story is when brave Gretel rescues her brother by pushing the witch into the oven, but—while the book deals with the grisly (and sticky) aftermath of the witch's demise in queasy detail—in this iteration the reader is directed to consider what comes next. H. and G. have returned home to their father's cottage and grown up. H., who "had always wanted to go home," who "wanted badly to believe that his Father loved him...that it was only temporary insanity that had made him pack his children off into the forest," has kept living the life that was meant for him before his abandonment. G., on the other hand, has remained the same girl "who had survived a great trial through remarkable grit, force, luck, and ruthless decisiveness" and has left home at the age of 10 with nothing but a small red box and her abbreviated name. Both H. and G. carry with them the laborious scars of their childhood, and Hong brings to bear her considerable formal talents as a poet as she explores the nuances of those scars. Told in the form of poems, lists, outlines, dreams, and endless, cyclical alternatives, the book pushes past the blueprint of the story's original framework and delves into the hazy realms of identity, memory, pain, and healing. Eventually, Hong comes to a specific and slippery truth about the societies we embed ourselves within: "Abundance and logic can cure everything but heartache and the drive to drown it or kill it."
In a book that is part tale, part confession, part scholarly analysis, Hong occasionally gets lost in the luxury of her own language. What remains, however, rises above a simple modernization to gleam as tantalizing and as strange as the wink of a pane of sugar glass glimpsed through the boughs of the deep, dark woods.