I'm quite sure most of you heard the story of Hansel and Gretel, the classic Grimm Brothers' story about the two siblings left in the woods, who stumble upon a gingerbread house full of sweet pastries and dangers. This article is about a retelling of the story by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. The book was poking out of a shelf in my library as if to catch my attention, so I picked it and read it, since I had forgotten it a month or so ago.
I'll start this with the end of the book, which is a story about the story of Hansel and Gretel. We learn of the origins of the story, how the versions evolved from the first telling of the story to Wilhelm Grimm (which is believed not to be the first telling of the story, for it may have origins dating it back to the XIVth century), to more modern versions. Gaiman chose here to go for a fairly classic setting, set a long time ago, in a place where war would eventually flood and dry life and hope from the land and its people.
In his version of the story, Gaiman sets the mood as optimistic, then rapidly switches it to gloom as war advances and the once happy family, if not living in luxury, quickly goes hungry and hopeless. The mother is the first to break, and she manages to convince her husband that the children must be lost ("not killed, lost") in order for the two of them to survive. Forewarned, little Hansel uses pebbles to find his way back, much to the joy of their father and the cold antipathy of their mother. The lack of improvement in their living conditions leads the father to take them out again, this time leaving Hansel no time to prepare.
The children are lost, and as all lost souls do, they find their way somewhere. I could tell you about the Gingerbread house and its owner, and old lady, maybe a witch, maybe Baba Yaga, maybe just gone crazy from the war and famine, and what happens, but that would spoil the fun, now wouldn't it?
The book has dark, black and white illustrations of the various scenes, and Mattotti has a unique style well suited for the book. The forest is oppressive, and only the characters stand out in patches of light amid the darkness.
All in all, it was a pleasant read, a retelling of a classic story, and it makes for a nice bedside book for children who want a scary story to read in the winter, when the night has come.