Pochemuchka; ‘The Vanishing of Katharina Linden’ by Helen Grant

There is something about an easily read book that annoys me. I am not entirely sure why, but if something can be read with ease in a small amount of time without too much thought I questions its value as a piece of brilliant literature. I am being unfair I know as an easily read book has its perks. Introducing the unenthusiastic to the passion that is literature with Dickens is not going to cut it; 500+ pages will only scare a new reader off. On a slight tangent I would like to mention that I, an avid read, cannot pick up any Dickens longer than A Christmas Carol without experiencing fatigue and/or back strain. In no way I am saying Dickens a standard of which to measure a love of good literature; High Canon be damned. Now, back to topic:

It isn’t ten-year-old Pia’s fault that her grandmother dies in a freak accident. But tell that to the citizens of Pia’s little German hometown of Bad Münstereifel, or to the classmates who shun her. The only one who still wants to be her friend is StinkStefan, the most unpopular child in school. But then something else captures the community’s attention: the vanishing of Katharina Linden. Katharina was last seen on a float in a parade, dressed as Snow White. Then, like a character in a Grimm’s fairy tale, she disappears. But, this being real life, she doesn’t return.

Pia and Stefan suspect that Katharina has been spirited away by the supernatural. Their investigation is inspired by the instructive—and cautionary—local legends told to them by their elderly friend Herr Schiller, tales such as that of Unshockable Hans, visited by witches in the form of cats, or of the knight whose son is doomed to hunt forever. Then another girl disappears, and Pia is plunged into a new and unnerving place, one far away from fairy tales—and perilously close to adulthood. Synopsis from Amazon

While I thoroughly enjoyed The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, the language was beautiful and the story interesting; the story felt simplistic. My main aggravations were the depictions of Pia and Stefan; Children may not think in the way Adults do but that does not mean there isn’t a complexity to their thought patterns. I never felt any fear from Pia or Stefan, Pia felt flat and Stefan under utilised. On the occasions fear was written in only once did it feel believable. Handling a story on child abduction is not an easy task and I did not feel Grant mistreated this plot line; her depiction of its severity in not only the public world but also the private fleshed out an otherwise lifeless plot. Depicting this through the child’s eyes was a brave move however, I felt this simplified the issue in a way I did not find completely comfortable.

Children can be fearless when a threat does not appear to touch them directly or is not grasped by their logic. Parental fear, when as serious as child abduction, does seep through to their children; children know when something is wrong. I never felt Pia’s mother’s anxiety did anything to Pia other than confuse her. I wanted Pia and Stefan to see and feel the fear the adults were feeling, even if they didn’t understand it.

On a more positive note the wonderful blend of German and English was perfect. Pia’s Father’s more literal German contrasted with her mother’s more flexible English added needed tension. The vast difference in their language identity was fascinating. Grant includes a glossary at the end of her novel to translate the many German words and phases she litters throughout her novel. This inclusion of words such as Doch, which do not exist in the English language, greatly improved the reading.

Bad Münstereifel, the town in which the novel is set, is a German town and interestingly (I am unsure if this was intended to be ironic or otherwise) Bad translates to Bath in English. Each time I read Bad I realised I was reading it as the English word rather than the German, with all the connotations with which it brings. This put an eerie taint on the town – of course horrible things were going to happen, evil is in the name. Even, when in fact, it isn’t.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is not a book I will re-read however, I in no way regret my journey through it. What it lacks in character development it makes up for in cultural depiction.

If you have an interest in cultural differences Philip Oltermann recently wrote an article, ‘What German’s Find Funny, in the Guardian which makes for interesting further reading.

NB: Pochemuchka is Russian for someone who asks a lot of questions; it reminded me of Pia.

The image is my own, which is why it is so horribly lit.

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