Monday, 7 June 2010

Two Books by Helen Grant

Helen Grant, whose story ‘The Sea Change’ appeared in ST11, has burst onto the scene of what is termed young adult fiction with two remarkable novels. Both are of interest to readers of ST, I’d hazard, because – while they are technically thrillers – they combine a detective story plot with elements familiar to lovers of supernatural fiction.
                Helen’s first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie medal. It’s the story of Pia, a ten-year-old German girl with an English mother living in a small, picturesque German town. The sort of town where everyone knows everyone else, and nothing can happen without the gossip grapevine picking it up. Until, that is, girls start disappearing.
                Pia is an interesting example of child-as-sleuth, not least because the novel is really the 17-year-old Pia’s recollection of her younger self’s adventures. This clever device allows teen Pia to be a bit more worldly-wise and articulate than her younger self might have managed.
In a well-crafted plot, in which telling details are dropped neatly into a blackly comic family farce, we learn why Pia’s grandmother exploded, how this affected her social life, and how this in turn led her to team up with an unpopular boy to try and solve the mystery. Along the way Pia meets various characters/suspects, is told some interesting folk tales of the Eifel region, and learns some tough lessons about adults, not least those closest to her.
Helen’s second novel, The Glass Demon, is also set in Germany, but this time is seen from the perspective of an English girl (albeit one who speaks German) who’s forced to go and live in the Eifel region.
The plot of TGD is derived from M.R. James ‘The Treasure of Abbott Thomas’ – or rather, from the backstory to that story. The precious stained glass from Steinfeld Abbey that MRJ described really exists. What Helen does is imagine that an even more wondrous set of light was created by the same Renaissance artist.
This glass, like that of Steinfeld, was removed from its original setting to prevent its destruction, but was then lost. Was it destroyed, as most of the locals think? Or might it have been preserved, as narrator Lin Fox’s father firmly believes? Given that her father is an ambitious medieval historian, his decision to uproot his already dysfunctional family and take them to rural Germany makes perfect sense – to him. But even before the Foxes arrive at the run-down castle in a forest that is to be their new home they have already encountered a grisly hint of troubles ahead. There is a legend that the mysterious glass is haunted by a demon called Bonschariant, an entity that somehow emerges from the glass itself. So when a series of deaths occurs, and each body is found surrounded by broken glass, Bonschariant starts to haunt Lin’s imagination.
Again, this novel is a thriller for the 12+ age group, but the story of the glass demon contained within it is worthy of the best traditional ghost stories. I’m sure Monty James would approve of the way the legend is fitted neatly into the overall plot. In both novels the author’s knack for psychological realism and dark humour allows her to carry the reader along, though some weird and distinctly grisly events.

Helen Grant's novels are published in the UK by Penguin.

The Glass Demon

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