Book Thoughts: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden

How can you resist a book with this opening line?

My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded.

I certainly was intrigued. Although there’s a very logical, believable explanation, the exploding grandmother story sets the tone for how everyday occurences and people gather mythical importance when manipulated by storytellers and gossips.

Set in a small town in Germany in the 1990’s, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant is the story of a year in the life of ten-year old Pia Kolvenbach as recounted by the adult Pia. After her grandmother dies, Pia becomes the class pariah and is befriended only by StinkStefan, the most unpopular boy in the class.  While Pia tries to survive in the social hierarchy of school, the whole town is rocked by the disappearance of Katharina Linden, a girl from Pia’s school. To escape their troubles at school and home, Pia and Stefan turn to an elderly neighbor who loves to tell scary folk tales. The town seems to run on gossip, and no one seems to be able to make any headway in the investigation of the missing girl. Emboldened and with nothing to lose, Pia and Stefan take it upon themselves to solve the mystery. The whole plot begins to play out like a true Grimm’s fairytale, a mix of childhood innocence confronting real life horrors.

Overall I enjoyed the book, but I had a few reservations. One, the book is written in the first person by adult Pia, but the tone/voice felt inconsistent.  Sometimes is felt like I was reading the observations of the ten-year old, but other times it was clearly the adult Pia looking back. Two, there were just a few too many questions left unanswered when the book ended. I don’t necessarily like books that race to tie everything up in a neat package at the end, but this just felt like it ended because the author was tired of plotting it out. Finally, I was a bit insulted.  Grant did use quite a bit of German throughout the text, presumably to force the reader to remember that this was taking place in Germany. And if I was a bit put off by her needing german words to create a sense of place, I was equally put off by the glossary of German words and phrases in the back of the book. There was not a single time that I could not grasp the meaning/intent of the german words by their context.

Although that sounds rather negative, I found the story very compelling. I think this would make a great book club choice, especially if your group enjoys discussing more than just the plot. The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is being released in paperback next week. This is Grant’s first novel and I’m looking forward to reading something else by her.

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