This experimental novel looks at life on Earth from the 14th through the 24th centuries during sightings of Halley’s comet.
In the early 19th century, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are collecting oral folktales to include in what will become their famous fairy tales. They are startled when they learn from a woman a variant of “Hansel and Gretel”; in the version she knows, the children are cast into the woods because Hansel “loves boys.” In this tale, Jacob recognizes himself; the brothers separately wonder if it is their duty to transmit the story: “Jacob will think: What is at stake in sharing this story? And Wilhelm will think: What is at stake in leaving this story untold?” These are the questions that preoccupy Drager (The Lost Daughter Collective, 2017, etc.) in this conceptual, philosophical book. “Hansel and Gretel” becomes a motif drawn through the centuries, beginning with the actual siblings in 1378. The fairy tale symbolizes sibling relationships and difficult tenderness forged within them; it also represents storytelling itself and the power of stories to be a “safe harbor,” especially for those who have been “hurt by coded forms of hate.” In 1986, for example, a gay man dying of AIDS has given his illustrated copy of “Hansel and Gretel” to a lover, whose obituary he spots in the paper shortly after. The queer woman who did those illustrations is committed to an “Asylum for Women” in 1910. In 2211, two space probes beam out the fairy tale in binary code, still relaying their narrative despite the fact that no human is left alive to hear it.
Drager’s novel, though beautiful in its conception, is frequently dense and abstract, perhaps more interested in the nature of storytelling than in the telling of the story itself.