The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis. Amulet Books, 2012. Currently Available.
Genre: Contemporary Realism with a dash of fantasy
Face Value: Beautiful. This cover invites you in and perfectly reflects the austere tone of the book. The rose surrounded by ice with a few drops of blood invokes fairy tales, which is a part of the story. But it also reflects the cold, sad, harsh beauty that is a big part of it as well.
Does it Break the Slate? I thought about this a lot, because I actually found a lot to like in this book. But no. It truly doesn’t break the slate. For one thing, Anna, our smart and sincere and lovely protagonist has potential Slatebreaker written all over her at the beginning of the story. Good-hearted and naïve, and about to graduate from high school, she’s starting to feel like she’s lived her life so far “in a soap bubble,” protected from the outside world. While her friends experiment with drugs and sex, teasing her for being a “little lamb,” Anna plays her flute, rides her bicycle and still indulges in imagination. But then she finds herself wrapped up in Abel’s life. It’s not anti-slatebreaking to fall in love, but over the course of the story we see Anna give up more and more to be in his world. We see her needing to be protected by others, whether it’s Abel, the also-vying-for-Anna’s-affections Bertil, her best friend, her parents. Though she does do things that are brave, she is mostly the victim or the martyr throughout the book. And then something happens (spoiler will be revealed in the review, after the break) that is horrible. And that horrible thing is acknowledged, but ultimately forgiven, both by our protagonist and (it felt to me) by the book overall. That I couldn’t get over.
Who would we give it to? This is one for older teens who are comfortable with darkness. I feel like the lush surreal quality of the writing, as well as the storytelling element would make this contemporary realistic novel popular with fans of fantasy and fairy tale writing. Mystery readers will find something here as well. Personally, I wouldn’t hand it to anyone, because it contains elements that make me too uncomfortable. But I think it will find its audience.
Review: I picked up this book because of a glowing review at Bookshelves of Doom, a blog I get recommendations from regularly, so I knew a couple things going in: 1) it was beautifully written and the blogger couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards and 2) it wasn’t going to end well. Both of these things turned out to be true, and likewise, I’ve been thinking about this book a lot since I finished it.
I wanted to love this book. Because there’s a lot that I did love about it. The writing, as I mentioned, is gorgeous, and the translator, Miriam Debbage, should get a tremendous amount of credit for how beautifully it reads. Passages like this one
“The frame of the big modern front door was made of red plastic; someone had taped a paper snowflake to the window. An attempt to make things nicer, friendlier: it felt strained somehow; like forced cheerfulness, it belied the desolation Anna saw. It made the cold February wind seem harsher.
Anna watched as Abel walked across the empty schoolyard: she wondered whether there was a limit to desolation or whether it grew endlessly, infinitely. Desolation with a hundred faces and more, desolation of a hundred different kinds and more, like the color blue.
And then something strange happened. The desolation broke.”
reflect the hypnotic, wintry, fairy tale feeling that is evoked throughout the entire book – just enough to make you feel that something magical might be happening, even when it turns out to all be heartbreaking, painful realism the whole time. Plus, Michaelis builds suspense like you wouldn’t believe. From the cryptic opening lines:
There is blood everywhere. On his hands, on her hands, on his shirt, on his face, on the tiles, on the small round carpet. The carpet used to be blue: it will never be blue again.
The blood is red. He is kneeling in it. He hadn’t realized it was so bright…big, burst droplets, the color of poppies. They are beautiful, as beautiful as a spring day in a sunny meadow…But the tiles are cold and white as snow and it is winter.
It will be winter forever.”
I was hooked, and barely let out a breath the whole time I was reading. From this enigmatic early passage we move into the actual story – Anna’s desire to break out of her “soap bubble life” and her growing relationship with Abel and his 6 year old sister Micha. The way the fairy tale Abel tells is woven into the story is masterful – there were moments throughout the book where I wasn’t sure if it was going to be strictly realistic or if a fantastical element was about to unveil itself.
But, as I mentioned above, as good as the writing and storytelling might be, it doesn’t add up to a Slatebreaking book. Anna never stands up to take her own life into her hands – rather, we see her fall into a fair number of abusive relationship patterns – giving up her friends, her own interests to be around Abel, who emotionally manipulates her. And then, close to the end of the book, Abel rapes her. It’s awful and gritty and horrible to read. Anna is numb and devastated, obviously, in the immediate aftermath. Those chapters read well, actually, in what feels like an authentic emotional response to the trauma of the rape. But. Then. She. Forgives. Him. Only 40 pages later they’re ice-skating together, she’s drawn back into his world. She never tells anyone what happened, because she doesn’t want anyone to think badly of him. Yes, the story is complex. Yes, there are extenuating circumstances. It doesn’t matter. That doesn’t get to just be ok. Ever. Even though Abel is ultimately proven to be capable of many terrible things, Anna never tells anyone what happened and she chooses to think of him as heroic over time. And that’s not acceptable.
It’s hard to condemn Anna as a non-Slatebreaker, because throughout it all I still liked her. I identified with her. I empathized with her. She is the kind of girl I would be friends with, and Michaelis does a great job of creating this realistic, intelligent, thoughtful protagonist. But our qualities for Slatebreaking aren’t about whether or not we like a character. It’s about choices and action. And up until the end, Anna makes her decisions based around others, not around herself. She lets Abel dictate her actions. He rapes her and she forgives him, and never tells anyone about it. I can’t get over that, as much as I might like things in the book otherwise. I’m curious as to whether other readers, who come to this book with similarly feminist perspectives felt the same way, or if you can give me a contrasting argument