Unfortunately, in recent years it’s become very rare that I begin reading a book in the evening—and absolutely must finish it before I go to bed. It’s even rarer that upon finishing the book in question, I find myself completely unable to fall asleep (I believe the last example was And Then There Were None when I was 13).
Enter The Vanishing of Katharina Linden.
Ten-year-old Pia Kolvenbach finds herself an outcast in her small German town after her grandmother’s death in a freak accident. Her only remaining ally is Stefan, called StinkStefan by the other children, a pairing that only underlines Pia’s unpopularity. Tired of the namecalling and rumormongering of their peers, Pia and Stefan spend many afternoons with Herr Schiller, a well-respected old gentleman who tells them stories of ghosts, witches, and the battle between Good and Evil. Much as she relishes these, Pia knows they are only stories—until the vanishing of young Katharina Linden.
Over the following months, the town is worked into an increasing frenzy, as more young schoolgirls disappear. Pia and Stefan are determined to solve the mystery, and soon find themselves on a quest involving decades-old village rumors, family tragedies, and a truly creepy reading experience.
Really, no matter what I say about this book, it will not do justice to both its brilliance and thrill/chill factor. Even though I was hooked from the first sentence (“My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded”), it took me quite a while to figure out what this book was about. Helen Grant has a deliciously infuriating habit of interspersing bits of the mystery with chapters full of completely commonplace events: Pia’s trouble at school, Herr Schiller’s stories, the Kolvenbach family life. This kept me constantly turning the pages late into last night, and made the book incredibly suspenseful and creepy (much as I need to, I can’t think of a better word), even though there isn’t too much “action” until the nail-biting climax of the last few chapters.
The story takes place in 1999, making Pia exactly the same age as me. The book, however, was written in 2011, and clearly meant to be Pia’s retelling of events 12 years later—she frequently notes that now, “nearly old enough to be considered an adult myself,” she has increased insight into the events of the past. This struck me as an interesting narrative choice: Usually literary childhood incidents are either told by the child in the present, or recounted from the perspective on someone much older, often an elderly person looking back on the past. To have a young adult retell childhood stories—well, I have to admit that I’m still not quite sure what the literary motives were behind that. Pia as the narrator makes no mention to her current life, nor of any contemporary events that compelled her to “write” the book. My best guess is that the chosen age gap somehow relates to Pia’s accelerated voyage to adulthood, her ability to read people with surprising accuracy for someone so young, her continued questioning of the difference between Good and Evil. Definitely something to keep in mind for a future rereading, which I’m sure will happen.
In conclusion—don’t start this book in the evening unless you’re prepared to stay up late and enjoy a good scare. I’m not ashamed to admit that after finishing, I forced my friend to talk to me online, cuddled with my cat, and watched several music videos on YouTube before I was able to get up and finally go to bed.