It is no secret Anna lives a charmed life. Her best friend calls her existence a soap bubble: Anna’s never dealt with trouble or had any problem come up that couldn’t be solved with the flick of a wrist. But the day she finds the stray toy doll and learns it belongs to Abel — or more specifically, his little sister Micha — Anna is bound and determined to learn more about this boy who her classmates call the Polish peddler. She’s drawn in not just because he’s a mystery and it’s clear that his life is so much different than hers.
She’s drawn in because of the fairy tale he’s telling Micha. One about a little queen who loses her home to the sweltering seas and must travel high and low looking for a place to stay. A safe place, away from the dark ship. The trouble always looming just within eyesight. The dark ship wants to take the pure diamond away from the little queen.
Antonia Michaelis’s sophomore novel The Storyteller is one of the bleakest, darkest, and shocking books I’ve read in a long time. What looks like it should be a fairy tale — even a grim one — is much denser and much more troubling than it appears. The thing is, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Michaelis’s book opens with a very brutal and bloody scene, but because the writing and storytelling is itself savvy, readers forget about that and are instead drawn right into the self-same fairy tale as Anna. This review is spoiler-ridden, though they’re light spoilers unless otherwise noted.
Abel’s life is the opposite of Anna’s. He’s living in a grungy apartment with Micha alone, but it’s much more than that. He’s not Micha’s official guardian, and he can’t gain legal custody until he turns 18 in a few short months. But since their mother went missing and Micha’s father (who isn’t Abel’s father) is not an okay choice, he has to make due. It’s tough, but he’s able to pick up a little money and they make it work. One night, though, Micha’s father turns up dead, and suddenly, Abel is a suspect. Except Anna’s not sure she believes he would do that. She’s learning a lot about him, about his grief and his strength, through how he treats his sister and through the story he tells them. In the story, he plays the role of a sea lion, and he’s always there to guide the little queen toward safety and give her warning when things look grim.
Stepping back for a second, it’s worth noting this story is told through third person. Throughout the passages where the story shifts to the fairy tale, the language moves with the fantastical pacing and style you’d expect of such a story. When the story is in the present, there is something interesting going on writing wise — it feels as though there is something lurking. Like there is indeed a black ship on the horizon. Because we can only see in so far, we have to trust Anna from a distance. But she, too, begins feeling suspicious that she might be being followed. That she isn’t alone when she’s with Abel and Micha.
Abel is visited by a social worker, and it’s here when the stakes in the story soar. The worry about whether or not Micha would be removed from Abel’s care is at the surface. But when that social worker ends up mysteriously dead, well, one problem is solved but more are now emerging.
I’m talking about this book a little bit out of order because talking about this next part is difficult, and this is spoiler. Skip down two paragraphs if necessary. Through the course of the story, it becomes obvious that Anna is falling for Abel. He’s broken and yet, he’s gentle with her and gentle with his sister despite everything. She loves him for his ability to weave a good story, too, and to make them all feel safe. One day, Abel kisses Anna. Suddenly, this is much more — and it’s what she was really hoping for deep inside. The two of them go for a walk one evening, and Anna is ready, more than ready, to have sex with Abel. They’re at a shed out by the water, and while she’s rehearsing everything in her head about how her first time should be, Abel is cautious. He’s not watching her advances. He’s not letting her near. Until he does. Until he rapes her. It’s a painful scene to read, and it’s even more harmful knowing there was a sudden twist in Abel’s character. What we were led to believe about him has just been ripped from us and from Anna.
At this point, it should be obvious Anna needs to get away from him. It’s also obvious her soap bubble’s just been burst. She’s hurt and aching, and everything she thought about him has been changed dramatically. But Anna doesn’t tell anyone what happened. Instead, she bottles it up. She wants to get him help — and she reaches out to their teacher, who she trusts, to aid Abel. Michaelis is attentive to how she handles the rape and subsequent actions on Anna’s part. She’s bruised and hurt and feels betrayed by him. And she mourns and frets but she also knows Abel behaved this way not because he intended to dominate her or humiliate her. But because he hurt so much. Because that was how he was trained to behave (here’s foreshadowing). Getting him help was what she needed to do.
Something I didn’t mention about Abel was that he earned his nickname as the “Polish peddler” because he sold drugs. That’s how he made his money on the side. Anna accepts this as truth, but following what happened between them, the truth unravels through a nasty trick played on Abel by a fellow classmate.
By the black ship that’s been haunting Anna and the reader on the surface.
By the black ship that’s been following the little queen and her pure diamond heart in the fairy tale.
Abel’s truth is awful. For a 17-year-old, he has indeed endured more pain and trouble than anyone ever should. Anna aches for him and she even forgives him for what he did to her. Because suddenly, she gets it. He behaved that way because that’s how he’s been raised. Because that’s what’s been drilled into him. Because that’s how he’s survived. Because that’s how he protects and cares for Micha.
That’s how he’s been the sea lion.
Right when it seems like the story is ready to be settled, though, readers are reminded of how The Storyteller began. They’re reminded that there is still that black ship on the surface. This book ends brutally. But maybe what makes it so bleak and so distressing as a reader is that the ending — and yes, we’ll learn where the mother is, and we’ll learn how the teacher attempts to help Abel — is that it almost feels like the ending is right. Everything that these characters have worked for and toward and everything that’s foretold through the parallel fairy tale comes to a conclusion that it needs to come to. But it’s horrific. And brutal. And awful. And yet…
Without doubt, Michaelis’s The Storyteller is one of the most memorable books I’ve read, and I think this is a definite dark horse Printz contender. A huge kudos goes out to the translator of this book, too, because it does not suffer in translation. You wouldn’t know that it wasn’t originally written in English, as it is that tight. The book reminded me in many ways of Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels, but it worked much better for me because it was realistic (whereas Lanagan’s is a grim fairy tale without a basis in our world). Likewise, there are definite undertones of Janne Teller’s Nothing. Though there are romantic tones in the story, this is in no way a romance, nor is it uplifting. I feel I need to hammer that home once more — this book is brutal and bloody and shocking, even for someone who likes this kind of stuff. That means, of course, there is a readership but it’s going to be a hand sell book to those whose reading tastes you know well. It’s challenging and literary but it’s incredibly successful in execution. The Storyteller is absorbing.
I would never have picked this book up because the cover doesn’t tell me anything and neither does the description. But it was Leila’s review that put it on the map for me, and it was this review over at Someday My Printz Will Come that made me click purchase on my cart. Antonia Michaelis’s book will be on my mind for a long, long time. Readers who love startling YA that dares to go there, The Storyteller exists for you.
The Storyteller is available now. Reviewed from purchased copy.