The Vanishing of Katharina Linden

Helen Grant



April 2009

“My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded.”
Many a novel has opened brilliantly and promisingly only to disappoint – it would, I suggest, be difficult to gainsay the brilliance and the promise of this particular opening sentence – but not one single moment of disappointment, not one wavering of tone, not one narrative misjudgment awaits the reader in this impressively assured debut novel.
After the grandmother has duly exploded (not spontaneous combustion, as one reviewer misleadingly referred to it, but the result of dousing herself with hairspray and then imperiously insisting on striking the Advent candle match) Pia, the narrator, is ostracised at school. Only one person is prepared to sit next to her, Stefan (Pia’s name for him is StinkStefan), a loner who sees this as an opportunity to secure a friendship with someone rejected by the rest.
The novel is set in Bad Munstereifel, a real place, a small spa town in the west of Germany. When a girl goes missing soon after the death by combustion of the grandmother, Pia feels herself the centre of a whispering campaign suggesting that she carries a curse with her.
Pia is not a native German. Her mother is from England. The relationship between Pia’s parents becomes increasingly fraught as the novel develops, with the mother continuously making caustic remarks about the small mindedness of the town, and clearly wanting to return to England.
In this climate, Pia and Stefan become close and increasingly daring in their desire to solve the case of the missing children. The tone set by the exploding grandmother – a tone of sardonic relish – is maintained for two thirds of the novel, with Grant’s choice of phrasing and use of dialogue exqusitely entertaining, and allowing the reader to take a somewhat detached view of events, as if watching a film. And then, hold on tight, turn those pages with increasing speed, feel yourself there, right there with Pia and Stephan in what proves to be a perilous predicament.
This is truly a book that leaves you gasping with admiration and nervous exhaustion at the end. It is, quite simply, a triumph and Grant is clearly a writer of abundant talent and promise. I feel frustrated that, as of yet, there is nothing else by her to read. But in due course there will be, and I am certain it will be every bit as good as this.

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