The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, by Helen Grant. Delacorte Press, 2009. 287 pp. 978-0-385-3441703.
... in which a young girl and her friend investigate the disappearance of several children from their village.
This book, set in a small village called Bad Munstereifel in Germany in the late 1990s, is told from the perspective of a 10 year old girl. Ostensibly a fairy tale, this is certainly a book meant for adults, not children.
The story opens at a Christmas dinner, where young Pia and her family are preparing to eat. Her paternal grandmother, who has a penchant for hair spray, tries to light the Advent candles and instead lights herself on fire, and is promptly immolated. Pia becomes the biggest pariah at her elementary school, and everyone refers to her as the girl whose grandmother exploded. The other children mock her, and shun her in case the "exploding" is contagious.
Pia's only friend is another social outcast, a child with the unfortunate nickname of Stink-Stefan. The two of them frequently go to visit an elderly man, Herr Schiller, who fascinates them with folktales and ghost stories, all part of the little town's history (a real town, and the stories are real folktales from the town's history). Meanwhile, a young girl at Pia and Stefan's school goes missing from a town festival. With Herr Schiller's ghost stories in mind, Pia and Stefan immediately suspect that Katharina's disappearance is supernatural in origin. Their suspicions are confirmed when other girls begin to vanish. Together, Pia and Stefan set out to discover the witch or ghost or spirit that is behind the kidnappings.
Although told from the perspective of a child, and interlaced with Herr Schiller's folktales, the themes of this book are decidedly not for children. Adult readers will read between the lines in the interactions between the adults; because the adults know that a child is listening to their conversations, they often speak of the abductions in veiled terms, and sometimes the things that are not spoken are the darkest themes of the book. The author, Helen Grant, does an admirable job of telling a story from a 10 year old girl's perspective, but keeping the storyline aimed at adults (or teens). As a backdrop to the mystery of the disappearing girls, we have glimpses of more mundane aspects of Pia's life: the nastiness of her fellow schoolchildren, the pettiness of the adult gossips, the slow dissolution of her parents' marriage.
It's a quick, fairly light read (I read about 80% in one sitting). The characters are well-developed (or as well-developed as they can be, seen through a child's eyes), and the plot never drags. The folktales that are mixed in with the narrative are appropriately eerie and chilling, and feel like real tales that you might hear from an old man by a campfire. The pacing of the climax at the end of the book is maybe a bit rushed, but not distractingly so. The solution to the mystery is no huge surprise, but it also wasn't something that was glaringly obvious early on, either. The ending of the book left me a little sad, because although they solved the mystery, the ending of the book wasn't exactly sunshine and rainbows. I think that my sadness is also a testament to how well Grant was able to get the reader to connect with the characters.
I do have one large complaint. With a cover like this, and the description of "modern fairy tale" on the cover, I expected talking cats. Lots of talking cats. To my sadness, there was one ghost story about witch cats, and one cat in Pia's village, and none of them talked.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5