I was on my way to lunch the other day and went to the New Fiction shelves for something to read while I waited in line for my turkey wrap, hold the Vidalia dressing.* A title caught my eye: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant. The cover looked good, too—I find the combination of vanish and cat to be almost irresistible—so I read the first couple of lines:
“My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded. And had I not been born in Bad Münstereifel.”
So that’s what a hook is . . .
Pia—who narrates as an adult looking back at her ten-year old self—lives in Bad Münstereifel with her precise German father and temperamental British mother. The end of Pia’s normal, safe childhood is signalled by an accident that John Irving couldn’t have foreshadowed better: five days before Christmas, Pia’s paternal grandmother, the indomitable and liberally-hairsprayed Oma Kristel, sets herself ablaze at a family dinner while lighting the Advent candles.
The townspeople of Bad Münstereifel, where gossip, exaggeration, and moral judgments are professional sports, are avidly horrified by the tragedy. Pia, who refuses to pander to the curious, is immediately dubbed “the girl whose grandmother exploded” and is shunned at school by her classmates, who semi-seriously fear catching spontaneous combustion.
The only one willing to talk to her is the other school pariah, StinkStephan. Reluctantly, Pia brings him to visit Opa Kristel’s friend, Herr Schiller, a kindly old man who tells them fairy tales—not the Disney versions, but the old, dark tales meant to scare children straight.
These spooky tales entertain Pia and Stephan until a girl at their school, Katharina Linden, disappears from a pre-Lenten Karnival parade, as if by magic. The children want to find Katherina, to gain social status and also to make sense of the crime, if crime it was. But then more girls vanish, one by one. And now the darkness of Herr Schiller’s stories seems much closer to home . . .
This novel is very . . . German. This is not a criticism; in fact, it’s the opposite—I don’t think all the elements would have worked as well in any other setting or told in any other voice.
The time frame is ten years ago, but it might as well be fifty; many of the characters divide local history by the second World War—before, and after. Herr Schiller’s fairy tales and the centuries-old traditions that are followed by the townspeople send the story back even further, as does the physical landscape. The occasional reminders of modern life jarred me as if they were anachronisms.
The voice, to my second-generation Deutsch-Amerikanisches ear,** has a faint accent, like my grandmother’s did when she told me stories about her family. It sounds as if the sentences were translated from the original German, with only a few common words and phrases left in for color or emphasis—or because that is how the story is remembered, for all the narrator’s later claim that she is losing her mastery of the language. The author, it may be noted, is English, but lived in Bad Münstereifel for some time.*** It is obvious that Ms. Grant knows how to listen.
She certainly knows how to write—even at the darkest points, the descriptions are brilliant. What is also brilliant, to me, is that while the voice and vocabulary are, for the most part, adult, the viewpoint is not. The fairy-tale imagery–Katharina is dressed as Snow White when she is taken, there is a vicious dog named Troll, and so on—and Pia’s tale-fed assumptions about what is happening in her town are a constant reminder that she is a child, who is only just becoming aware that monsters can be all too human.
This is Helen Grant’s debut novel, and she’s set the bar high for those of us still seeking publication. Her next novel, The Glass Demon, will be out soon and I’m interested to see what new—or old—world she’s crafted.
*I like Vidalia dressing, but I can’t eat a dressed wrap with one hand while keeping my book open with the other, lest I end up with a wet, oniony elbow.
**Yes, I’m showing off, but to be honest, the generation part isn’t precisely true. My grandmother, the youngest in her family, was conceived in Germany but was born in the States with minutes to spare—at the foot of the gangplank, as my uncle once put it.
***According to the book bio, Ms. Grant has a “small German cat.” I like that.