Delacorte Press, August 2010
"My life might have been different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded."
– The Vanishing of Katharina Linden
Fairy tales, despite their intent, are not very well suited to children. Sending a tot off to sleep with images of witches throwing children into an oven, to make them the centerpiece of her dining room table, aren't really conducive to a good night's sleep.
And by good night's sleep I mean not waking up screaming in terror.
Helen Grant builds the framework of her delightful first novel around fairy tales, or rather local legends, surrounding the town of Bad Münstereifel, Germany. After the loss of her paternal grandmother to spontaneous combustion, young Pia Kolvenbach develops an image problem. Previously a happy girl with an adequate number of friends, after the unfortunate demise of her grandmother the local children do what children do best: they ostracize her to the point of complete misery.
Only a boy known as "StinkStefan" befriends her. Though it's essentially social suicide to hang out with Stefan, Pia doesn't have a whole lot of choice. Soon the two become friends, hanging out together and regularly visiting a charming elderly man, Herr Schiller, who regaled them with wild tales just frightening enough to be interesting.
The one person in Bad Münstereifel who wasn't fond of Herr Schiller was Herr Düster, the local eccentric who was everything Herr Schiller wasn't. Unfriendly and unkempt, he was universally reviled in the village. A virtual recluse, he spent most of his time hiding away in his tumble-down house, across the street from Herr Schiller.
Soon something horrible began happening in this normally quiet and uneventful village, something that eclipsed even Pia's grandmother's unusual death. Young girls in the village began disappearing, the first being Katharina Linden, who disappeared during "Karneval," a time when all the villagers dressed in costume. Pia's last memory of the girl was seeing her dressed as Snow White, standing beside the fountain:
"When she vanished, it almost seemed like something from a fairy tale, as though she were one of Grimms' twelve dancing princesses, who somehow got out of a locked bedroom every night and came home in the morning with their shoes worn to flinders. But Katharina never came home at all."
As girl after girl disappeared, Pia's English mother vehemently insisted the family move to England and away from the danger. Her father refused, his job and livelihood keeping him in Germany. Pia began retreating to the welcoming warmth of Herr Schiller's, Stefan in tow, to get away from the building tension in her house. Hearing the old man's stories of mysterious happenings, the children's minds turned to the possibility of solving the crime themselves, becoming heroes in the process.
As more girls disappeared, the tension in the town grew. Neighbors became suspicious of each other, paranoia and fear turning the once quiet village into a place filled with mistrust. And the more frequent the kidnappings, the more Pia's parents flew at each other's throats. The village, and Pia's family, was falling apart. And the worst was yet to come.
Grant's writing style is polished, her ability to create diverse characters well-refined. Such assured prose in a first novel is an impressive achievement.
The downside is I was a bit confused for what audience the book was written. Adult readers who also enjoy young adult fiction would probably find it a worthwhile read. But younger teens (the ages of the main characters), for whom the plot would also be appropriately thrilling, would need to be mature enough to handle the occasional f-bombs that seem to explode out of nowhere. While not a prude by any stretch, the casual use of extreme swears would keep me from handing the book to my own 13 year old son. And my older teens – 15 and 16 – would probably be bored by the subject matter and characters younger than themselves, with whom they can't as easily relate.
So, who does that leave? Adults like myself who enjoy twists on the fairy tale, fantasy mixed with thrilling components: readers who enjoyed Harry Potter, the Hunger Games series, as well as Tunnels. A somewhat limited reading audience, maybe, but Helen Grant's prose is so well written I'm looking forward to her next book, The Glass Demon, due out next year.
My final verdict is The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is a smart page turner, a good effort at translating the fairy tale into a modern setting. While still a bit iffy as to its audience, I thoroughly enjoyed it.