Published in 2009, Helen Grant's debut novel is an interesting and welcome addition to the bookshelves. At a time when teenagers seem to be offered endless vampire/werewolf/school stories it is refreshing to find a novel that provides excellent writing and taut plotting whilst looking to our European neighbours rather than America for its setting.
10 year old Pia Kolvenbach lives in the picturesque and small town of Bad Munstereifel in Germany. When her Grandmother explodes on advent Sunday Pia is ostracized by her school friends. Being part of a small town, where everyone knows everyone, the death of her Grandmother is on the way to becoming a local legend and Pia rapidly becomes aware of the harm that spite and gossip can do in a community as closely knit and as stifling as the one in which she lives. Katharina Linden, a school friend of Pia's, disappears during the festival of Karnaval. Pia is the last person to see her alive and she realises that whilst everyone might think that they know everyone else's business, clearly this is not the case. With 'Stinkstefan' as Batman to her Robin, the pair decide to take matters into their own hands and investigate Herr Dusterr, another victim of small town gossip and brother to Pia's friend Herr Schiller.
As more girls disappear and Pia and Stefan become more daring in their investigations, Pia discovers more about the town in which she lives, it's poisonous gossip and long held grudges, than any 10 year old has the right to know. The resolution of this thriller of a tale will have you on the edge of your seat and younger readers might want to look away towards the end of the book.
Whilst Pia in the book is 10 and her story takes place in 1999, it is an older Pia who is narrating the events of her childhood which allows Grant to use a wider vocabulary and bring a greater level of analysis to the actions of the adults around Pia - thus appealing to a wider audience. Indeed this is a book that could equally be read by adults as teens.Interspersed with Herr Schiller's grim folk tales and the break up of Pia's parents marriage, Grant has produced a multi-layered and modern novel dealing with the loss of innocence.
Longlisted for the 2009 Teenage Booktrust Award this book is a timely reminder of the richness of our European storytelling tradition with folk tales and Gothic horror mixed with modern crime.
There is no sex or swearing in the book but the creepiness of Herr Schiller's tales together with the slightly gruesome nature of the ending put this book firmly in the category of 14+ reading. The text is also interspersed with German words and a glossary is provided at the back of the book making this a slightly more challenging read. Helen Grant's second book The Glass Demon has just been published.