The Vanishing of Katharina Linden

With all the hype surrounding the US publication of The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, I was eagerly anticipating Helen Grant's debut. Sadly, the marketing copywriters are doing better work than the actual author and once halfway through the book, I found myself impatiently waiting for the completion of a book that was decently written but poorly conceived. The publisher would do well to stop likening it to other works because not a single comparison pans out... particularly the idea that the narrator here, Pia Kolvenbach, bears any resemblance whatsoever to the intelligent and delightful Flavia de Luce (the creation of Alan Bradley). If anything comes close, it's the reference to the book having the air of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales -- but the real fairy tales that are frightening and twisted, not the Disney-fied versions, thank goodness -- and yet one wishes that the real plotline had enjoyed some of the imagination that the stories suggest rather than simply lacing Pia's perspective with the stories so that she might half-wonder if fantastic things really are coming to pass. In short, everything that I read about the novel beforehand led me to expect something quite different... and probably soured my reading experience as a result. I found myself a bit annoyed in the beginning because of all this, then was more pleasantly disposed as I focused on the story... but quickly grew annoyed again when the "mystery" worked itself out to be disappointingly predictable. Grant's writing style is acceptable if not particularly noteworthy, but had it not been for the author stumbling onto the legends of this particular German town and retelling them here, I would have found the whole thing very dull indeed.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is set in the late 1990s and I started the novel feeling surprised, as nothing I had read seemed to hint at the modern time period. Also surprising was the fact that since the author's European location is hyped, I expected a translated work and was a bit thrown by the ridiculous abundance of German words purposely inserted into the English text. I feared that this would be the only consistent way to tell that the story was set in Germany and not simply any old European town with a history rich in folklore but there are enough subtle differences of to make this somewhat unfounded... and of course, there's the occasional awkward reference to Nazis and the war. There's a glossary in the back of the book, but it's rather unnecessary once one accepts the presence of the liberal scattering of German words. Needless to say, the author is English and simply moved to the Continent with her family... and actually lived in the town where the book is set, as a matter of fact, but I can't see any townspeople thanking her for putting their location on the map if it's to do with the abduction of little girls.

Bad Münstereifel is a small German hamlet, filled with people who like to gossip and since everyone knows everyone (and often knows everything about them for several generations back), few things are ever forgotten. What our ten-year-old narrator, Pia Kolvenbach, would like everyone to forget is the unfortunate incident of her grandmother's demise, which involved an Advent wreath, a match, and an abundance of hairspray. As a result, Pia is the girl whose grandmother exploded and even if it isn't true (she technically died from a heart attack as a result of the surprise of going up in flames at the dining table), it's the thing Pia will be known as to the rest of the town's inhabitants... particularly the nasty school children. After this, Pia can only claim to have one friend, the class pariah known as StinkStefan, and even having this one friend is enough to make Pia depressed if she's sunk so low as to need Stefan's companionship. (Thankfully, Stefan's unfortunate moniker is a result of his tendency to linger like a bad smell rather than from any odor emanating from his personage.) Pia herself is the daughter of a German man and an English woman, a first of two progeny from very tense marriage that is clearly heading for divorce from the get-go. (Side note: they're also terrible parents. Pia's little brother is a baby and given little attention from the narrator. Neither parent seems to make any attempt to connect with their first born and the entirety of their parental concern is expressed in forbidding Pia to go places so she can be safe in the house.)

Well, if gossip is what the town wants, then that's certainly what it gets. Katharina Linden, a little girl nearly the same age as Pia, disappears in the middle of a town holiday celebration where children dressed in costume. The little girl dressed as Snow White simply vanished without a trace and the town can find no sign of her. Immediately, the other children in town feel the repercussions as parents go into overdrive to keep their children indoors and away from whoever or whatever snatched up Katharina Linden. Pia and Stefan are about as interested as anyone in the missing girl and mention as much to their elderly friend, Herr Schiller, a kindly grandfather figure who Pia used to visit with her grandmother and now continues to visit on her own and with Stefan. The allure of Herr Schiller rests in the fact that he treats children like intelligent beings... and has a never-ending supply of stories derived from the fantastic folklore of the area. Unfortunately, Herr Schiller only seems tired when they try to discuss Katharina's disappearance -- and then the children learn that this is due to the fact that Herr Schiller once had a daughter named Gertrud who disappeared years ago in another instance where young girls went missing. The town is inclined to point its finger towards local recluse Herr Düster, Herr Schiller's estranged brother. Frau Kessel, one of the old women in the town with a reputation for knowing everything tells Pia and Stefan that in their youth, both brothers fought over the same woman and Herr Schiller won -- only to have her die of illness during the war and then have his daughter stolen and murdered by a jealous brother. Of course, this is just her suspicion, but in a town where gossip is enough to condemn you, it was only the fact that Herr Schiller did not give credit to this theory that kept Herr Düster from real blame.

Three girls went missing then -- and more girls will go missing in the present time before Pia and Stefan ultimately play a role in solving the mystery. At least the author is not unaware of the danger facing young children as they attempt to solve a crime and adults aren't always as inept as they can sometimes be depicted. Herr Schiller continues to scare the daylights out of Pia and Stefan with his wonderful stories (which are, indeed, quite interesting) and the kids try to survive school and their home lives, turning to the mystery as a thing that they can work on together. At one point in the novel, Pia is sent off to spend part of the summer with her grandmother in England, enduring cruel cousins and intense boredom, before she starts realizing that perhaps this trip wasn't just to keep her safe from whatever is snatching children in her hometown, but perhaps the move might be more permanent as her parents continue to feud.

Ultimately, while I was disappointed with the novel as a whole, there were elements of Grant's writing that I enjoyed and I hope will serve as the cornerstones of her future work so she might improve... though if she continues to write books with this mystery edge to them, I'm not sure I'll bother much as the question of who (or what?) kidnapped the little girls was easy for the reader to decipher from the beginning. I also like the fact that the story is essentially told by Pia looking back on this time of her life with a few years' worth of distance so that occasionally she might note things she hadn't realized at the time, mostly dealing with the motivations of adults that don't make sense to children. Of course, what I particularly liked about this was the fact that adult Pia didn't feel the need to necessarily spell these things out. In all, I wasn't delighted with The Vanishing of Katharina Linden but I did see some promise in Helen Grant that I hope stretches beyond the creativity of the folklore that was the truly delightful part of this novel to carry her through the next few novels that "Delacorte eagerly snapped up" according to the ARC.

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