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.