Rating:The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, by Helen Grant. Penguin (2009), 304 pages.
Back-cover reviews describe this as “atmospheric” and a “modern fairy tale,” words that fail to convey that the last quarter of the book is actually a bona fide horror story. True, there are many enjoyable “atmospheric” elements: small-town Germany is convincingly portrayed (in fact, the setting is inspired by the actual little town of Bad Münstereifel), and the character of Herr Schiller, an elderly man who regales our middle schooler with dark, disturbing legends ostensibly from the town’s past, provides a wonderfully eerie and folktale-ish mood and is the most engrossing aspect of the book. The end of The Vanishing, however, unexpectedly turns into Hollywood horror. I had a weird sense that I was no longer reading a book, but a screenplay for a gruesome movie in the Wes Craven genre, à la The People under the Stairs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; I just felt that the book inexplicably changed tone somewhere toward the end, which took me aback.
A minor flaw is the voice of the middle schooler. She doesn’t come quite fully alive, and her relationship with her guy friend feels slightly off.
The death of her grandmother in the first few opening pages is also very odd. As another reviewer pointed out, nobody would “explode” from putting on too much hairspray near an open flame; that premise is ludicrously farfetched. Since the scene sets the stage for the book and is meant to explain something about the girl’s treatment by the other students at her school, the reader is left confused: are we to accept the death at face value? Or is it meant to mirror the mythical folktales told by Herr Schiller? If we aren’t meant to take it seriously, then the girl’s ostracism doesn’t make sense. Then again, why would an exploding grandmother necessitate ostracism? None of this really adds up.
Still, I’ve given the book three stars for its folktale-imbued sense of life in small-town Germany. I recommend it if you have a particular interest in Bad Münstereifel, and/or serial killers with unusual ideas about what to do with dead bodies.