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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 29.
- Review Date: 2010-04-12
- Reviewer: Staff
It may seem strange to describe Grant’s debut as a charming horror novel, but there’s a determined amiableness about the narrative that will appeal to readers who wouldn’t typically be drawn to such subject matter. It’s December 1998, and 10-year-old Pia Kolvenbach and her family are living happily in the quaint German town where her father grew up, until Pia’s grandmother accidentally sets herself on fire and burns to death. A rumor erupts that her grandmother exploded, and, overnight, Pia becomes an outcast. Her only friend from then on is the most unpopular boy in her class, nicknamed StinkStefan. The two of them begin visiting an elderly man who entertains them with ghost stories from local folklore that Pia and StinkStefan hope might help them solve the decades-old mystery of a number of local girls who have gone missing. The story’s richness isn’t as much in the mystery plot as it is in the finely rendered background, where desperate parents strive to protect their children in an uncertain world, though the simplicity of the narration makes the novel feel lighter than probably intended. (Aug.)
Through a child's eyes
Helen Grant’s inventive debut, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, takes readers into the curious mind of a young girl whose small town is beset by a series of mystifying disappearances. Like Briony in Atonement or Harper Lee’s Scout, Pia Kolvenbach is a precocious observer whose interpretation of events is clouded by her innocence. Susceptible to the fancies of her young imagination, Pia makes a bold choice—to discover the dark truth behind the town’s mystery.
Bad Münstereifel is a classic German village, a quaint blend of medieval and post-war architecture, rife with gossip. When her Oma Kristel dies in a bizarre accident involving too much hairspray and an open flame, Pia becomes notorious at her school as the girl whose grandmother exploded. Ostracized, she is left with only one friend, Stefan, another outcast. So when one of her schoolmates, Katharina Linden, disappears without a trace, Pia is relieved that the town’s attention finally shifts away from her family—albeit remorseful that her social salvation has come through such a horrible occurrence.
Katharina’s vanishing, only the latest in a number of similar incidents through the years, instills a sense of alarm among the parents in Bad Münstereifel, who impose strict curfews on their children. Another girl disappears, then a third, and the townspeople adopt an angry-mob mentality, focusing their rage on Herr Düster, a taciturn old man with a suspicious demeanor. Pia is surprised to learn that Herr Düster is the brother of Herr Schiller, a kindly neighbor who regularly regales her and Stefan with deliciously grisly folktales about strange doings in the woods on the outskirts of town. Inspired by these tales of witches and pagan rituals, Pia and Stefan vow to get to the bottom of the girls’ disappearances, and with callow determination they plunge into solving the mystery. Of course, that proves a dangerous occupation for two ill-equipped, if bright, pre-adolescents.
Pia’s desire to make things right and become the heroine of Bad Münstereifel parallels her sense of helplessness at home. Her mother is English and yearns to return to Britain, especially once she begins to fear for the safety of her children. Pia’s father, born and raised in the town, and intent on staying, cannot understand his wife’s reaction—nor, in his uninspired German way, her ironic wit. The impasse cuts to the heart of their marriage, but young Pia remains unaware until she is presented with the unimaginable certainty that her parents will divorce and she will be displaced to dreaded Middlesex.
Blending elements of ghost story and intrigue with the classic coming-of-age novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is an original and well-observed tale. Though the mystery at the heart of the story is somewhat protracted and its solution less than surprising, Grant compensates for minor narrative imperfections by creating memorable, wholly believable characters—particularly Pia, a worthy addition to the literary gallery of likeable, resourceful children.
Grant, a native of London, moved her family to western Germany’s Bad Münstereifel in 2001, where she found her inspiration for The Vanishing of Katharina Linden after hearing local folk tales.
Grant’s imagination—coupled with predigious research and skillful writing—make her an author to watch.