When I finished “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” I couldn’t figure out what to read next. So I stopped for a moment and listened to my heart. My heart said, “Read another Neil Gaiman book! And then read another one! And another one!” But my brain said, “You have a blog, now! You can’t just read the same author over and over again; people will get bored!” So, I read something else instead.
Title: Wish Me Dead
Author: Helen Grant
Publication Date: June 02, 2011
Paperback: 400 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: No. Pookas are Irish, not German.
“Wish Me Dead” is the third book I’ve read by Helen Grant. The first was “The Vanishing of Katharina Linden,” which has one of the best first lines I’ve ever encountered: “My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded.” After that line, I was hooked. I needed to own everything she’d ever written, including “Wish Me Dead,” which was essentially unfindable in the U.S. I actually had to order it off of amazon.co.uk. While I waited for it to arrive, I read one of hers that I could find, “The Glass Demon.” And I wasn’t as impressed. So when “Wish Me Dead” came in the mail, I cast it aside and it became lost in my labyrinthine bookshelves. It was lost for years. Until I dug it out a few days ago (luckily, I caught the Minotaur snoozing).
All of Grant’s novels follow the same basic formula. While the characters differ, the setting remains the same. Each story is set in Germany, in a quaint little town called Bad Münstereifel. Her protagonists are always young females (this time Steffi was eighteen, as opposed to ten-year-old Pia from “Vanishing…”). Bad things are always afoot, but it’s never clear if the bad things are a result of mundane or supernatural causes. Grant consistently leaves her reader wondering, “Could it really be true? Could the impossible be real?” Up until the last, you’re never sure if what you’re reading is realism or fantasy. This last because she flawlessly weaves local legend into her characters’ lives. In “Vanishing,” it was the story of Unshockable Hans. As Grant explains it, “Hans is supposed to have lived in a mill in the Eschweiler valley, to the north of the town. The mill was so badly infested with evil forces that nobody else had ever succeeded in staying there. Hans was made of sterner stuff than his fellows; as well as making his home in the mill he is said to have faced down the eternal huntsman and the headless ghost.” Here’s a drawing of him that I found, done for a really cool project called Alphabooks (“U” is for “Unshockable Hans”):
The legend that “Wish Me Dead” is woven around is that of woman named Gerd Vorn, who was burned as a witch. The accusations were that she’d supposedly “lured away and murdered two children, Hans Schmitz and little Löttchen Bär,” but during the long hour that it took for the wood to finally catch and for her to die, she “screamed out her innocence until her smoke-scoured lungs gave out.” The townspeople “called her ‘Rote’ – Red – Gerd, not because of the long auburn hair she had, but because her hands were literally and figuratively stained with blood – the blood of innocents” (8).
In the town where Steffi lives, it’s tradition to go up to the cottage in the woods where Rote Gerd lived and try to get her spirit to do your bidding. When her group of friends is bored one night, one of the guys convinces Steffi & pals to do just that. They wish for a local celebrity to die and, unbelievably, she does. Spurred on by the news and adrenaline, they go back up to the cottage, each making their own individual wishes. Only Steffi’s comes true. And they keep coming true. Unfortunately for them, there are some really shitty people in Steffi’s life. The body count rises.
Who’s behind all of these (mostly unlamentable) deaths? Could it really be Rote Gerd? Or is someone else taking matters into their own hands?
What Made the Book Totally Worth Eating:
1. Every character seems a plausible suspect. The killer could be anyone.
Could it be Max?
At one point, Steffi wishes for five-hundred euros & receives it. Max is wealthy. He lives in “an enormous white villa paid for by the car dealership [that his father owns], with a well-stocked drinks cabinet that [his] parents never bothered to check” (58). Going to Rote Gerd’s house was his idea in the first place, and he’s the most excited and insistent about the whole process. Early on, Grant writes, “Max had this unquenchable conviction that there had to be something more, that there had to be excitement and drama and danger, and that he should be in the middle of it, the hero of the story” (50). Writing that someone is the hero of the story is almost a surefire way to guarantee that they’re actually the villain.
Could it be Kai Von Julich?
Kai’s the town’s golden boy, after whom “every woman under twenty five” (109) lusts. There must be some darkness mouldering underneath all of those light good looks. And he’s rich, too. He drives a red sports car, “a streamlined monster with gleaming bodywork.” As Steffi says, “I didn’t know anyone else in Bad Münstereifel whose parents could have bought them a car like that, even Max whose family were very well off” (2). He could certainly afford to gift her five hundred euros. Or ten thousand.
Could it be Magdalena?
Magdalena is Steffi’s long-lost sister who skipped out on the family for unknown reasons, leaving Steffi to be her parents’ only hope for taking over the Nett bakery (something she has no interest in doing). Maybe Magdalena is secretly back and feeling guilty, trying to give her sister everything her heart desires. Steffi did visit Rote Gerd’s house for the first time when she was young with Magdalena. And her parents reveal that Mag wanted to be an actress. Could playing the witch be the dramatic role of a lifetime?
Could it be Achim Zimmer?
He’s her father’s assistant at the bakery, and he’s disgusting. He has big, meaty hands and Steffi’s afraid to even pass by him in fear that those hands will grope her. (Experience has shown her that this is not an unfound fear). He’s always eyeing her up and down, needlessly placing himself in her path, and when Steffi finally works up the courage to at least say, “I hate you,” he responds “You’re going to like me a lot. You’ll see” (228). Is he so confident because he knows he’s the one granting her wishes? Most of her requests would make a moral person blanche, but Achim doesn’t seem to have that problem. The first victim also died face-down in a cherry baked good; it would’ve been easy for Achim to have hand-delivered that streusel.
Could it be Hanna?
Steffi’s best friend isn’t attractive, but she seems to have a crush on Max. She’s always watching him appraisingly, eyes glittering. Steffi notes, “Max would never look at Hanna” (61). Could she be willing to go to desperate lengths to get the daredevil’s attention? Making his game a reality would definitely be a grand gesture.
Could it be Julius?
He has the same color hair as the witch – which Grant alternately describes as “flaming” and “burning.” He always wears a sweeping, black coat (like a cloak or a cape), and he clearly has a crush on Steffi. He stares at her with a deep intensity and she thinks more than once about how she knows he wants to be more than friends. But she doesn’t seem to return his feelings. Could granting her wishes be a way to convince her that they’re meant to be together? Unrequited love’s a killer…
Grant intentionally leaves little clues, little details, that could implicate every single character in the book. When Steffi tries to puzzle it out, she thinks a very meta thought, “The more I tried to rationalize it, the more entangled my thoughts seem to become” (314). Is that because there is no rationalizing the actions of a legend? As a mythical being myself, I know that humans don’t always see what’s right in front of their eyes. They can’t accept magic, even if it’s the most obvious explanation. It’s much easier for them to think “murderer” or “rabbit” than it is for them to think “witch” or “pooka.” Normally, I don’t like mysteries. I don’t ever care who it was that “dunnit,” but this last tantalizing, fantastic possibility makes Grant’s mysteries the exception for me. I need to know!
2. The expert creation of atmosphere and mood.
I really enjoyed the description of Rote Gerd’s house, a tiny decrepit, decaying stone structure, with a gaping maw for a doorway, wishes made word all over the walls. “They weren’t all curses. There were messages pleading for love, messages asking for good health. Some of the older inscriptions simple said ‘return’; I thought perhaps they were from the war years, written by mothers and wives and sweethearts, desperate for loved ones to come home safely” (35). The need in the house is palpable and overwhelming.
What I Spit Back Out:
1. Steffi Nett.
I hated Grant’s protagonist. It’s not just because she’s shy. Usually, quiet girls have unforeseen depths. They may not say much out loud, but they have an active inner world; they give unspoken, eloquent monologues; exhibit surprising, biting wit; and have passions that help to define them. Steffi’s got none of that. All we know about her is that she never speaks up, never holds her ground, never wants to disappoint, and quietly follows others. When Julius mentions 100 pages into the book (that’s how long it takes!) that Steffi was in school choir and has a beautiful voice, and tries to convince her to join his band, I literally wrote, “Oh, good! Depth!!!” in the margins. But that never pans out. And even if she does show some interest in his proposition, even if it leads her to one of her only, single, episodes of boldness, we never get to hear her thoughts on it. We never get to hear how singing makes her feel.
She’s selfish! She uses all of her wishing power on herself and never offers to help her friends. When they come to her, she denies them. When they so much as look like they might ask her for something, she avoids them. I understand that she doesn’t want to wish for bad things to happen to people she doesn’t know, who have never done anything to her, simply because her friends have assured her that these people deserve it. But couldn’t she ask for something good to happen to each of her friends in turn? Couldn’t she at least offer that? “I’ll wish anything you like,” she could say, “so long as it brings happiness and not harm.” But she says nothing of the sort.
AND, she’d never qualify for the Feminist Reads Challenge! On multiple occasions, she expresses that she’d rather be dead than have her virtue questioned. Because a girl’s got nothing if not her chastity and purity, right? Girls who own their sexuality are worthless! She says, “if Frau Kessel had spotted me [alone with a boy], my life would not be worth living” (156). And again, about another girl in town’s secret pregnancy, “If the news had got out — her life would not have been worth living” (174).
And what of the way she treats her supposed best friend? She repeatedly uses the word “dumpy” to describe Hanna’s body type. If my friend had a little extra weight on her, I might say she was “voluptuous” or “curvy” – God, even “round” or “plump” is better than “dumpy!” What kind of a friend are you if you think of your friend’s body in relation to trash — to rubbish?! That’s exactly the way to support a healthy body image in young girls.
And I hate that she has a crush on the most popular boy in town. She’s not even unique in matters of taste.
I know we’re supposed to watch her grow and come out of her shell and be proud of her progress, but the girl doesn’t move in leaps and bounds. Nothing she does, even at the last, is very impressive. She’s a bland, milquetoast prude and I resent having to be in her brain. I want the story, but I don’t want it told by her.
2. The lack of editing and the carelessness with language.
At one point, Grant put a section of words in italics and then forgot to take the italics off when she was done. (163). The prose is repetitive. These two sentences are back to back: “On the whole I think we were both relieved to part. I didn’t see Julius at all, and on the whole I was glad” (106). And most egregiously, at one point Steffi has a whole conversation with a character she can’t find. Her conversation partner’s name is accidentally substituted with the missing person’s name, so his lines look like they’re being are spoken by someone who isn’t even in the scene. The mistake continues for two paragraphs! (304).
On the whole, “Wish Me Dead” was based on a great concept. I like Helen Grant’s formula. I like that she mixes fairytale and folktale darkness with awful, hard-hitting, real life darkness. I like Bad Münstereifel and the German, small town setting. I like how masterful she is at creating doubt and uncertainty — at making you question what you’ve always believed to be stable Truth. But no story can survive such a disappointing protagonist.
To add insult to injury, as I was finishing up the book, I stumbled upon an article about great first lines in literature. Included, was the opening to Iain Banks’ The Crow Road, written in 1992, eighteen years before The Vanishing of Katharina Linden. Bank’s book begins, “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” I was shocked. Appalled. I feel so betrayed. So duped.
But I think I have a problem. Because I just found out that Helen Grant has written two more books. One of them, Silent Saturday, is the first in a projected trilogy called “Forbidden Spaces.” It came out in the UK in April of this year. I’m not going to read that. Well…I’m certainly not going to buy it. But she also came out with a collection of short stories, The Sea Change & Other Stories, and there’s a part of me that’s hoping against hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that it’s just the medium that’s wrong and that Helen Grant’s still all right. I’m going to read it. I’m probably asking for disappointment. But the heart wants what it wants.
When I finished “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” I should have given my heart what it wanted. I should have known that when you’ve got Neil Gaiman fever, the only prescription is more Neil Gaiman. Next time, I won’t resist. Next time, I’ll whip out Neverwhere and the cowbell.
Pooka Rating: 2 out of 5 Nibbles