Otfried Preussler, Krabat (1971/2)
First published in English under the title The Satanic Mill, this German children’s classic (translated by Anthea Bell) has now been reissued under its original title as part of the Library of Lost Books. It is the story of Krabat, a boy in 16th-century Saxony, who investigates a strange mill and finds himself compelled to become the miller’s apprentice, working alongside his eleven journeymen. The Master teaches his journeymen dark magic, but at a price: every New Year’s Eve, one of them will die.
Some children’s books can, of course, be well appreciated when one reads them as an adult; but I find myself wishing that I’d read Krabat as a child, because I can imagine how much stronger the sense of discovery and excitement would have been. Even so, I very much enjoyed Preussler’s crisply-told tale. What’s particularly striking is how much the book doesn’t reveal; there’s very little about Krabat’s life before the mill, and much about the miller and his powers is also left open to interpretation. As a result, the air of mystery and strangeness around the book never goes away; I was left guessing what would happen up to the very last page – there is no sense in this novel that a happy ending is guaranteed.
Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (2006/11)
It starts simply enough: Emmi Rothner tries to cancel a magazine subscription, but mistypes the address and her email ends up in Leo Leike’s inbox. He notifies her of the mistake, and all is forgotten until, months later, Leo receives Emmi’s automated Christmas message and yet another email meant for the magazine. So begins an intimate email correspondence underpinned by something that may yet turn out to be love.
Love Virtually is told entirely through the medium of Emmi’s and Leo’s emails (in a nice touch, the novel uses two translators – Katharina Bielenberg and Jame Bulloch, who are a married couple – each working on the messages of one protagonist). At first, I was unsure of this device, as, by their nature, such correspondences are always going to be more interesting for the participants than for outside observers. And, sure enough, there were times when the tone of the emails – enticingly drawn-out for Leo and Emmi, but rather long-winded for this reader – tried my patience.
But, as I got further in (and the novel was swift and snappy enough that this didn’t take long), I warmed to the ebb and flow of the exchange, which is a kind of courtship dance that creates personae for the two correspondents whilst occasionally offering glimpses of the real characters underneath. Both protagonists could gain or lose from the dialogue: Leo is single, though the sparks of his recently-ended relationship have not yet burnt out entirely; Emmi is married with children, but seems to drive the correspondence more than Leo, as it provides her with something that her existing relationship does not. Whatever reservations I might have had towards the beginning, by the end of Love Virtually I was gripped, wanting to know what happened. The ending is judged perfectly, and paves the way for the sequel, which will receive its English-language publication later in the year.
Belinda Bauer, Blacklands (2010)
My first choice for the Great Transworld Crime Caper – not that there’s much of the caper about this book – I first came across Blacklands as one of last year’s TV Book Club choices. I didn’t read it at the time, but I should have, because I missed a gem. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb is preoccupied with finding the body of his uncle Billy, assumed to have been murdered as a child. Steven keeps digging on Exmoor, but without success; in desperation, he writes a letter to convicted child-killer Arnold Avery (one of whose victims is thought to be Billy)) asking where his uncle’s body is – and a game of cat and mouse begins.
What makes Blacklands work so well is Bauer’s sharply observant eye, and the careful positioning of Steven’s and Avery’s correspondence (and the search for Billy’s body) in her characters’ lives. Steven’s Nan – Billy’s mother – is forever scarred by the loss of her son (‘underneath she would always be Poor Mrs Peters’, [p. 8]) , which she refuses to accept. This has translated into a fractured household; Steven’s quest to find Billy is partly an attempt to patch up his family, but also his way of bringing purpose to a life beset by troubles at school as well as home.
For Avery, Steven’s letters also bring a sense of purpose and hope, though a much more chilling one – particularly after an inadvertent reflection in a photograph taken by Steven reveals to Avery that his correspondent is a child. Bauer opens enough of a window on to Avery’s mind to make our visits there deeply disturbing, but not so much that we lose sight of the monster he is. The author also builds tension very effectively as the novel progresses. Blacklands is a difficult read at times, but ultimately I found it a rewarding one.