Review: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden

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:

 photo credit

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!

Review: The Magic Toyshop

Short post today, I have so much reading to do (uni, but still fun), I can’t seem to concentrate on one book enough to write down my thoughts in a manner that will make sense to people not in my head. So apologies for my ramblings but since I am reading Virago books for Virago Reading Week I still wanted to share.

Angela Carter’s works have been on my radar for ages but so far I’ve always chickened out of actually reading anything by her. But this is a new year and I’ve recently gotten over my intimidation of Rushdie, so when I saw that Rachel and Carolyn are hosting a Virago Reading Week, it seemed like the perfect occasion to delve into Carter’s world.

Starting a book with a lot of preconceived notions is nearly always a problem, but I’m happy to say that I was not disappointed. The Magic Toyshop is completely amazing though not nearly as disturbing or weird as I expected. It’s foremost a coming of age story, namely that of 15-year-old Melanie who discovers and relishes in her newfound sexuality. However, when she and her siblings are suddenly orphaned, Melanie is confronted with the darker side of human interactions and sexuality. While she is at home, Melanie is free to explore her sexuality (going as far as to perform in front of a mirror), but when she and her siblings move to their uncle’s place in south London, she and her body seem to become something of a territory to be explored and conquered by men. There is Finn, whom she is both repelled by and attracted to, and of course her uncle who tries to exert control over her by deciding over her clothes, her speech and finally by trying to re-enacting Leda and the Swan.

The use of speech in this novel is certainly interesting. Uncle Philip uses it as a means of control; Melanie is told only to speak when addressed directly, and her aunt  has fled or been suppressed into speechlessness and has to use writing as a means of communication. The uncle does seem to prefer his family to be as silent as his puppets and suppressing their speech is one way of putting strings on his family. Uncle Philip’s love for his puppets is pretty creepy, as are the puppets. And I don’t know how weird that makes me, but I really expected there to be more to them (like being murdered people made into puppets. Should probably stop reading Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories).

What I also loved was Carter’s ability to create such atmospheric prose. It’s nearly lyrical in places but never too flowery or merely decorative. Are all her novels like that? I read that this was one of her earlier works, so I really want to see what she went on to achieve. The Magic Toyshop is amazing, but I think that aspects of power relations, gender and those dark and twisty instances of magical realism could be more pronounced.

For my second Virago read this week I chose Mad, Bad and Sad which is great so far. I’m happy I read The Female Malady last year, so now I can compare how Appignanesi and Showalter approach the subject (and I can nod knowledgeably when names and theories I’m familiar with pop up 😉 ).

What are you reading this week?


Other thoughts:

Things Mean A Lot

Verity’s Virago Venture

Another Cookie Crumbles

Lovely Trees Reads


Have you reviewed this book? Let me know and I’ll add a link!