Author: Antonia Michaelis
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery, Romance, Young Adult
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
“How can writers create something so damn beautiful from something generally considered ugly…like pain?” It’s the first question that popped into my head after I flicked the last page of Antonia Michaelis’ The Storyteller.
I have no idea what I was getting myself into when I started reading The Storyteller. Honestly, all I knew was that I picked up a nondescript young adult novel with a fairytale flavor. I was expecting the usual fare. How was I to know that this 400-page tome would make me crawl into my fortress of sheets and pillows, where I would curl up into a sobbing ball of despair?
Even before you can read past its proverbial once-upon-a-time, you’d know The Storyteller is a bleak fairytale that would sooner or later knot messily into a happy-never-after. Anna Leemann is a seventeen-year-old girl who thinks she lives in a “soap bubble” of easy living. She’s the epitome of protected innocence, kept at a safe distance from life’s harsh realities. As she totters on the brink of adulthood, she becomes largely aware of the wall separating her from the world; it’s only a thin film, and she gets the urge to break free and experience more. The epiphany dawns on her when the mysterious school drug dealer, Abel Tannatek, unwittingly barges into her life as her first love.
But Anna and Abel are as mismatched as a spoon and a screwdriver. Abel is an abused and self-abusive mystery. He listens to white noise in his old Walkman to drown out the world and wears an Onkelz sweatshirt so everyone would leave him alone. He is the yin to Anna’s yang, the razor-edged corrupt to her soft purity, the dark splotches of ugly truth to her whirlwind of white lies. But beneath all the layers of his murky chain-mail is a delicate treasure: a heart of a tale-spinner, a boy who creates stories from an unknown limbo of words. Anna discovers one day that he’s dedicating a fairytale to his six-year-old half-sister, Micha.
Abel relates to Micha and Anna a multi-episode account of a little orphan queen pursued by hunters. It turns out the story has parallels in reality: social services and Micha’s violent, jailbird father could snag her away from Abel once they learned of the siblings’ impoverished state. Anna gets caught under the fiction’s spell, but when the people Abel includes in the story end up dead in real life, it’s Anna turn to be afraid. Has she fallen in love with a murderer?
The thing about The Storyteller is that it never pulls any punches like most of its peers under the YA umbrella. Antonia Michaelis answers the question “how far can people go in protecting the ones they love?” by knitting a disturbing tapestry of brutal scenarios—the kind that we’ll cringe to look at, but ones we’ll acknowledge as honest without second thoughts. Michaelis’ prose sometimes curls with the waiflike elegance of poetry, and every so often ends with the jagged teeth of pseudo-journalistic bluntness. It’s couched in a language that would swallow you whole and wouldn’t spit you out until you can taste the intense tang of every detail it has to offer.
The blending of fairytale and reality is seamless. Being a wet-in-the-ears pen warrior myself, I’m aware that it’s no piece of cake hooking a story with another without losing some of its identity. Michaelis does this with zero effort. The imagery can steal your breath away, no matter how gritty it may seem. Of all the facets of this book—romance, mystery, thriller—what I love the most is this, the enmeshment of contemporary realism with fantasy.
Abel and Anna unite in a fractured love story that I can call my kryptonite. My immunity to cookie-cutter storylines crumbled right away after I learned about their star-crossed portraits. They refuse to be tethered to the usual Romeo-&-Juliet formula—they don’t act as if they can’t be complete without each other or would die if the other did. They are their own individuals with their own dreams and apprehensions. The story’s pacing gives them time to flesh themselves out. Anna is deliberately depicted as inchoate due to inexperience, but she’s struggling to grow out of her shell; she’s everyone’s image of the last dollop of naivety before we launched into the world. Abel is not your usual hero, because, well, Michaelis never really made a hero out of him. Damaged and unstable, he’s a proof that not every victim manages to escape from the shackles of his past, even if a potentially transformative love unfolds before his very eyes. He’s a proof that not everybody gets saved.
In the end, I think this book has official turned me into a literary masochist. I’m not a happy-ending junkie to begin with, but it’s rare for me to marvel so much at something that stomped my heart to pieces and wouldn’t let me reassemble them. I was so torn between giving this book as a chew toy for our neighbor’s dogs and crafting a separate shelf for it after reading the epilogue.
There are so many scenes here that I would never forget: Anna’s torn cloak of love, bloodstained poppies in the snow, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics thawing with the dreary atmosphere, the little queen’s journey, or the last tragic scene that sticks around my memory like a stubborn ghost. I would never forget that both Michaelis and Abel are tale-spinners of the most powerful kind.
I’m a budding storyteller too, and in the most unconventional of ways, my belief for the magic of words—every bit of them that gets ploughed out from the imagination—is vindicated by this book.