In Bad Münstereifel, a small town in Germany, everyone knows everyone and their business. But then Katharina Linden disappears and suddenly the townspeople have to face the fact that these things happen even in their midst and Bad Münstereifel turns into one more place where parents are afraid to let their children roam outside.
Our young narrator is Pia, known as the girl whose grandmother exploded. Due to her grandmother’s unfortunate accident with an Adventskranz (advent wreath), Pia becomes a social outcast and has to make do with the friendship of StinkStefan (possibly the only one in school more unpopular than she is) and Herr Schiller. Herr Schiller is a genial older man who welcomes both children into his home and tells them local folk tales (most of which are apparently real stories of the area). Pia’s life is also unsettled by her parent’s marital problems, as her English expat mother wants to move the family to England.
At the center of the story is thus the tragic but sadly not uncommon phenomenon of young girls disappearing. But Grant embellishes her story by adding fairy tale and horror elements in the tradition of the Grimms as well as local folklore. The atmosphere she invokes is really fantastic, especially as we look at things from the perspective of a ten-year old girl. Bad Münstereifel is a small town with cobbled streets and timbered houses, close to the Eifel forest and is exactly what I always pictured when reading Grimm’s fairy tales (I grew up near the Eifel and we often went there to explore, though I think it was stressful for our parents, it is very easy to get lost). Here is a picture of Bad Münstereifel and the surrounding forest:
I found The Vanishing of Katharina Linden to be an engrossing read. I didn’t mean to read through it in one sitting but Pia and her story captivated me. She is a very likeable character and narrator and I read that many people were confused about the target audience. I didn’t really think about that at all when I picked it up, but it seems to be suited for adults as well as young adults. Even though Pia is about ten years old in the story, she looks back from the age of about 17. I find her ‘memories’, that is the young Pia’s perspective well-represented though. I read the fairly tale elements as Pia’s way to negotiate her ten-year old’s world view with the sudden intrusion of adult violence in her life.
Looking back, I’m happy that this book wasn’t marketed aggressively as a YA book with fantasy and horror elements. It is very unlikely I would have read it. But I stumbled over this in the store and the cover isn’t very YA book-like (not my edition at least) and was shelved simply under English novels. Categories are often helpful guidelines but sometimes they scare me off books I might have enjoyed under any other label (there is something to say for rummage boxes in used books stores).
Grant lived in the town herself for some years and I can’t tell you how great it is to read a writer who uses German words and actually does so correctly! (Because butchering a foreign language when you have countless proofreaders and editors does not make you an intellectual!) Grant’s style is fantastic, the novel captivates you in the way that great stories do, but not in the breathless ways of thrillers. There are enough quiet moments that allow you to ponder the effects of the disappearances on the town of Bad Münstereifel and how children transform their reality to accommodate these disturbing events.
Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!