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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Telling Tales

Storyteller 202x300 Telling TalesThe Storyteller, Antonia Michaelis, translated by Miriam Debbage
Amulet Books, January 2012
Reviewed from ARC

This German import only received one star, and honestly, I’m not sure anyone is talking about it.

But I think this is an unsung, unnoted gem, and everyone needs to get a copy STAT.

And then read the book before you read any more of this post, because here be spoilers, and they would really spoil things. I am so glad I did not know what I was getting myself into when I started this, and I would hate to ruin the visceral experience of the book for anyone else.

So, in case that wasn’t clear enough: click beyond this point ONLY if you’ve already read The Storyteller. Or if you know you’ll never ever read it. (But then you’d be missing out.)

Michaelis’s US debut was Tiger Moon, a book that blew me away despite the problematic exotic other of its depiction of India. It’s a book I have found myself thinking of often, so I went into The Storyteller with high hopes and some trepidation; Tiger Moon was a fairy tale in whole, while this is a fairy tale in parts but by and large realistic.

What I found was that there are lots of layers here, and something that goes beyond a simple description. In all honesty, the complexity doesn’t always work. But this is one that stays with you, that eats at you, and somehow the whole absolutely surpasses the sum of the sometimes problematic parts.

I’ve been thinking about the definition of literature I referenced when I was working my way through the definition of literary excellence. “Ideas of permanent or universal interest,” right?

At heart, this is a book about the collision between innocence and — knowledge, maybe? Not in the sense of wisdom, but experience. Awful, ugly experience. Anna Leeman lives in a soap bubble (her own words); best friend Gitta — “who believed herself to be grown-up” — calls her “little lamb.” Anna is the personification of innocence, but in her last year of high school she yearns for something more. She feel trapped by the safety and innocence of her world, and perhaps a bit embarrassed by her own almost childish lack of knowing.

And then there’s Abel Tannatek, poor to Anna’s rich, corrupt to her innocence, grown up well before his time to Anna’s extended safe childhood. Of course Anna falls for him; she reaches out and he responds. What’s a good girl to do when faced with a bad boy who looks at her twice? That’s a permanent idea too, after all, as is the fact that perfect innocent Anna is a little bit broken herself. Too soft or too hard; extremes here are dangerous things.

So what elevates this beyond the tropes?

Well, it’s a genre-blender, and if you pay close attention, you might have noticed a tendency to consider this a major plus when we’re talking quality.

(Not just by me; look at Going Bovine, Jellicoe Road, American Born Chinese, how i live now, Monster; the genre-blender or genre-defier has received a lot of love in the short span of the Printz)

It’s easy, relatively speaking, to work within the confines of a genre, to stick with a formula, to stick characters into a tale we all already know, at least in the broad outlines. It’s harder to effectively pull together elements from several different narrative styles and conventions and stir them into something new. Or, if not harder, more impressive to the end user. It seems fresh, original.

The Storyteller looks like a romance at the beginning. Well, no. The very beginning looks like a mystery. Then it looks like a romance. Or maybe it’s a coming of age? Wait, is it a thriller? And then there’s the fairy tale woven through, which hearkens back to that mystery at the very beginning but is it’s own separate, 1,001 Nights sort of thing as well.

So, okay, mastery of several different genres is on display. And there is some beautiful sentence level writing. Presumably Michaelis gets credit for this, but props are also due to translator Miriam Debbage, who has made some odd choices at times but has also found the English poetry in the originally German words. The first time Anna sees Abel with his little sister Micha, she thinks about how different he sounds: “Somebody had lit a flame between the sentences, warmed them with a bright, crackling fire.” And then there is Abel’s story. Out of context, I’m not sure it’s easy to see the beauty of the language, but this is perhaps where the writing soars the highest.

Abel’s story mixes the elements of fairy tale, and its linguistic tropes, with the utterly mundane. His grammar shifts when he tells the story, but he uses images pulled from his own life; the little cliff queen wears a down jacket with artificial fur even as she receives prophecies from talking horses. The shape of the sentences feels right for a fairy tale, and I could probably write a treatise just on how that was done (word choice, grammar, pacing, stylistic conventions: if you want me to go on, I can do that.)

The fairy tale turns out to be a parable or illustration of the very real world quandary facing Abel. His mother is gone, his little sister’s father (not his father) is a pedophile who wants to get his hands on Micha, and Abel himself has been utterly destroyed by the things he has done to survive. These ugly pieces are balanced by their softer appearance in his story, making everything a bit more bearable for the audience both within the book (Anna and Micha) and outside the book (the reader).

And then there is the undisguised ugly; the rape scene is visceral and painful to read, but such a powerful, honest look at the ramifications of Abel’s past. For that alone — for going where so many books don’t, although they might skirt around it — this deserves credit. Accuracy indeed.

And the imagery! Above and beyond the obvious encoded in Abel’s fairy tale (which shouldn’t be dismissed, but should be evident to any reader), there are layers of imagery woven throughout the non-fairytale narrative. The freeze of winter is probably the least subtle of the images, but it’s used so delicately, evoking both physical and emotional pain and death and peace. Images of space also resonate throughout — the expanse of the water, the long stretch of a street, the gracious lines of Anna’s house and the cramped rooms of Abel’s life. I’m not sure how much of this I consciously noted on the first read, although the palpable atmosphere was unmissable, but on a second read it became clear how careful and precise the descriptions are.

Finally, there is a sense of place here that is impressive. I don’t know where this city is — somewhere in what was once Eastern Germany. But I know it nevertheless; Wolgaster Street and the ocean that freezes every winter, the old homes beautifully restored and the leftover concrete blocks from the socialist era, side by uneasy side with the shiny new buildings. And on the edge, the wild forest. I’m not sure as a reader if I really know what Anna looks like, but I know her city, and the city is critical in many ways; it echoes the people who live in it, with its uneasy juxtapositions and the ugliness buried below new paint and cheerful doorframes.

So where does it go wrong?

The writing is sometimes awkward. The dialogue is often strained, which might be writing or translation but definitely isn’t perfect. There is an odd tendency to anthropomorphize things that seems at odds with the stark reality for everything other than Abel’s story; it’s almost as if the writerly voice that crafted his story couldn’t quite turn off some of the magic language.

And speaking of places where the writing goes wrong, the strange use of ellipses throughout sometimes breaks the pacing. Does anyone know if the ellipsis is better loved in German? There were pauses where they seemed inappropriate but I know I read steeped in the conventions of American stylistic norms.

And although I was at the edge of my seat as far as the suspense goes, the red herrings became a bit too much and started to seem forced towards the end. It’s not a short book and the tension wasn’t always maintained evenly, which was another blow to the pacing.

And I’m just not sure about the ending. Despite my intellectual doubts, I was emotionally wrecked by it. I cry easily, but this left me feeling a bit gutted. I’d have to do a close reading of the whole book again to really see how Michaelis pulled this off, but I’ll have to save that until I’ve managed a first reading of the rest of the contenders.

Conclusion? I’m going to call this one a proper dark horse contender, flaws and all. Currently, I’d put this in the top ten for 2012. Can I make a case for it in the final five? I need to think on that. And, of course, hear pros and cons from other readers. So lay it on, the possible one of you who actually read this.

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About Karyn Silverman

Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything (except current events, because she’s too busy reading YA literature to follow the news). Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Hannahlily says:

    Ok, you convinced me. I didn’t read the post (because I haven’t read the book!) but I just ordered The Storyteller for my library.

  2. Wendy D. says:

    Just ordered it and will read it this week.

  3. Maureen E says:

    Okay, you’ve convinced me to give this one a second try. I started it and got to about page 25 and gave up. But…I know Leila from Bookshelves of Doom also really liked it and that’s enough to get it out again.

  4. tess says:

    I hated this one. It wasn’t for any literary reason, really. It just disgusted me on a base level.

    When I got to the rape scene I was pretty so-so on the book so far – I found a lot of the prose a bit clumsy and overwrought (really, I only need to hear “soap bubble” once to get it, not a dozen times in the first chapter) and I thought Anna was milquetoast and insipid, which I wouldn’t have minded if that was the author’s intention but I’m pretty sure we were supposed to like Anna. So, hovering around B/B- territory.

    And then I read the rape scene. More importantly, I read what came after. And I was absolutely appalled. I hated how it was centered around Abel’s past, Abel’s suffering, Abel’s perfect torment. I hated that Abel was still portrayed as a tragic hero. I hated how Anna went back to him and that was portrayed as a good thing because, hey, he’s a solid guy and he’s had a tough life. And I don’t think brief lip service to it Never Being The Victim’s Fault and the “unreasonable” Anna blaming herself made up for the implication that if she hadn’t rushed him, he wouldn’t have raped her.

    It made me sick, honestly. So I don’t consider this a Printz contender; it crosses the line from “portraying a rape from the point of view of a character who’s having non-PC thoughts” to “rape apology.” And I don’t think it’s even particularly well-written.

    I’m sorry for the rant, The Storyteller just really upset me.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      @Tess – Huh. I read the scene differently. Look at pp 280-282 in the ARC (hopefully final pagination matches). Anna is imaging the experience of going for a test (for STIs), and in her imaginary conversation the word rape is referenced. And while one part of her wants to deny it, the other part says “And that’s what it was.” So there is that section, when she is a wreck, and I thought the way Anna can’t focus or connect, the way she retreats into herself, the way she wants to deny it but can’t all felt very genuine. And then, starting on p 294, she tries to find a way to reconcile the fact of this terrible thing with the intense emotions she still feels for Abel. This is icky and disturbing, but I believed it. It’s proof of Anna’s brokeness — I think Anna is pretty screwed up, and that’s there from the beginning; she doesn’t quite function like everyone else, does she? And then there is the point when she decides to give him another chance, and while I do not, as an adult who works with teens, as a woman, feel happy or comfortable with that decision, I absolutely believe it of Anna. The one truly unrealistic moment is there moment of happiness right before the ending, but I forgave that as a minor flaw under my reading. It plays very differently with your interpretation.
      So while I stand by my reading of the book, I can totally see how it can be read a different way, and now my discomfort is significantly increased. As are my reservations about this dark horse. Hmmm. Won’t someone else read it and chime in??

  5. Mark Flowers says:

    Just finished this one this afternoon. It’s not a top contender for me, but I did want to chime in, because I really disagree with Tess’s reading. I thought Michaelis did a really excellent job of showing Anna’s inner struggle over the rape, and I didn’t think for a second that she (the author) was apologizing for or approving of Anna’s decision. Yes, we were meant to understand *why* Abel did what he did, but Abel himself states that it can never be forgiven, and that judgement was never refuted by the book, in my opinion.

    As for Anna being milquetoast – I actually think that was exactly the impression we were supposed to have of her. That she was utterly boring and dull, until this intriguing event happens and she begins to come out of her shell and start to look around the world for the first time.

    My problems with the book were entirely plot/suspense based. Basically, I thought that with all of the red herrings Michaelis built up that it was just ridiculous that the ending was, “oh, actually the most obvious solution of all is the right one – sorry for leading you astray.” There were so many other ways the story could have gone (even into a magical realism one, which was what I was hoping for) that to settle on, Abel killed everyone to protect Micha was completely mundane (and, had it not been for the over-written subterfuge, could have been predicted by p. 50 or so).

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