The Vanishing of Katharina Linden is part fairy-tale, part coming-of-age story, part mystery, and each component is captivating. I kicked the habit of biting my nails decades ago, but I found myself nibbling ever so slightly as the events unfolded to their conclusion. Though the story takes place in 1998, there is a timeless atmosphere that makes the disappearance of girls from a tiny German village all the more creepy. One could almost sense the gingerbread house witch lurking just outside the narrative. Pia, the daughter of a German man and his English wife, is eleven as the story begins, a social outcast because of her status as "the girl whose grandmother exploded," which is well-known through the village of Bad Munstereifel. Her best friend by default is StinkStefan, the only child who doesn't inch away from her as though spontaneous combustion were contagious, and the two spend time with the elderly Herr Schiller, who tells the most delightfully creepy tales and knows everything about the town's history. After Katharina Linden disappears during Karneval, the town is ready to lynch Herr Duster, Herr Schiller's brother, who had been suspected in disappearances of girls many years before. Pia and StinkStefan begin to investigate Herr Schiller and the disappearances (Katharina is only the first). The town busybody Frau Kessel is more than happy to fill them in on past scandals. Herr Schiller's fantastic tales wind together with the grim reality of a kidnapper on the loose in a tiny village. The reader is taken on a journey gradually deeper and darker and more tangled, like Hansel and Gretel walking into the woods.
In the midst of the fables and unfolding mystery as the disappearances mount, Pia is undertaking far more pedestrian struggles. Her mother, long yearning for England, sees the disappearances as a good excuse to remove Pia from the only home she has ever known. A miserable visit with the cousins who mock her English interrupts her investigation with StinkStefan, of whom she becomes rather fond by necessity.
This book is like nothing else I've ever read. It was one of those rare stories that doesn't leave your thoughts when you've set the book aside. The atmosphere, the storytelling, the rich characters came together into a meeting of realism and fable.
Source disclosure: I received an advance proof of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program.