on 22 October 2012
The perfect book to read in late October, with dull, dark misty nights drawing in and that sense of impending Halloween doom. I've heard this described as a very 'dark' book, but what I found surprising, looking back, was how gradually the 'darkness' descended. Small increments of 'darkness' so that nothing seems, in isolation, too shocking, until, by the end, when you understand the astonishing truth, you also realise how dreaful a situation has been cunningly exposed. At times, whilst I was reading, it felt a little 'slow', which is why I didn't give it five stars, but in some ways, that was part of the elegance of the downwardly spiralling storyline. Not quite 'The Cutting Room', but Louise Welsh's next best book, in my opinion.
Jane comes over to Berlin to join her partner Petra, who is already living and working there. Jane doesn't know anyone else in Berlin other than Petra's brother and his partner, and her German isn't fluent, so straight away she feels rather alone and isolated there. She is six months pregnant when she arrives. Jane takes an interest in the teenage girl, Anna, living next door with her father Alban Mann, when she meets them and then overhears voices, and she pieces together what she thinks is happening.
I liked the setting of Berlin with its own ghosts, and the ruined building behind the flats they live in, looming and casting shadows over their place:
'...any sound in the courtyard caught her attention and when everything was silent there was the shadow of the derelict building darkening the room. Even when she looked away she could feel the backhouse's presence, brooding at the corner of her eye.'
There is the graveyard nearby. It all creates or contributes to the unsettling, uncertain mood of the book. The atmosphere is dark, confined, brooding, always the hint of someone lurking, flashes of movement, silhouettes; this creates such tension.
Jane is a compelling and complex lead character. She is persistent and won't be dissuaded from what she thinks is the truth. She doesn't always do what you think she ought to, or what you might expect, which makes for interesting fiction. Jane gets very involved with pursuing her train of thought. She clearly believes in what she thinks has happened, but is she seeing things clearly, or imagining things that aren't really there, or haven't really happened? She seems to exist in a state of paranoia, both about what is going on around her, and at times about her relationship too.
This is a dark, haunting novel. The story builds and as the tension increases I enjoyed it more and more, and felt it got better and better until I was gripped, and felt that there's a very good writer at work here, creating this sense of unease within the reader. It's a fairly short novel, written in spare prose with evocative descriptive passages and effective dialogue that always adds to the plot progression. I liked it a lot and will be looking out for other books by this writer.
on 20 September 2012
This is a psychological thriller is of the short, considered kind you don't really see much anymore. In a marketplace where publishers insist that even the simplest story is eked out to 400 pages, it's refreshing to encounter a novel confident enough in itself to calm down and deliver its tale in an efficient, effective way.
Jane Logan has moved to Berlin with her partner Petra. She's also pregnant with their first child. When Petra is called away for work, Jane finds herself alone in their new apartment, and alone in an unfamiliar city. She meets Anna, the young daughter of her neighbour, polite doctor Alban Mann. Anna seems to have a different bruise each time Jane sees her, and she becomes convinced the girl is being abused by her father.
Jane's concern for Anna grows alongside her increasing concern for her unborn child (a relationship that Welsh takes time to explore movingly). She vows to help Anna, but is surrounded by strangers and in a place she does not yet understand. As Jane's frustration and paranoia grow, we become concerned not only for her, but for those around her, as it becomes clear she is in danger of doing more harm than good.
Welsh builds tension expertly, and Jane's increasing obsession is believably-paced and impressively free of clichés. This is a well-written and powerful page-turner.
Louise Welsh's chilling fifth novel is set in Berlin. Jane, a Scottish bookseller, has moved from London with her German partner Petra to begin a new life in Germany's capital. The pair have decided to have a child - Jane has become pregnant through artificial insemination and plans to be the baby's main carer, while Petra, a banker, will be the main breadwinner. Bored by her lack of work, feeling trapped in a city where she barely speaks the language and ambivalent about becoming a mother, Jane develops an obsession with Anna, the teenage girl who lives downstairs, and with Anna's taciturn if charming father Dr Alban Mann. After hearing the father and daughter arguing and seeing a bruise on Anna's face, Jane becomes convinced that Alban Mann is abusing his daughter, and a chance remark by the old lady in the flat downstairs (who has senile dementia) convinces her that Mann murdered Anna's mother, who mysteriously disappeared years before. Jane becomes increasingly determined to redeem and save Anna and punish Mann, and when Petra goes away for a week, her suspicions reach a peak of intensity. But there seems to be very little evidence against Mann - could Jane in fact be imagining the whole thing? And what really happened to Greta, Alban Mann's wife? Welsh keeps us guessing whether Mann's crimes are Jane's paranoid fantasy or whether he really is guilty, as the story hastens to a terrifying climax.
This is the first Louise Welsh book I've read. She certainly can write a pageturner - I was up late two nights with this book. And her descriptions of Berlin (part run-down city steeped in history, part modern snazzy metropolis) are brilliant. Her discussions of what it might be like to raise a child in a same-sex relationship are also very interesting, as are some of the German characters (particularly Petra's brother Tielo, and the elderly couple who still remember World War II). I admired a lot about this book, but I found also found both the protagonist Jane and Welsh's refusal to ever tell us what was true and what wasn't infuriating. Welsh's teasing the reader with the possibility that Jane was in fact mad owed something to Henry James (I wasn't surprised to see the quote from 'The Turn of the Screw') and gave the book a stiflingly claustrophic atmosphere. Jane was also increasingly impossible to sympathize with. Her attitude to motherhood (calling her unborn child a 'goblin' or 'troll', imagining vomiting up a devil, constantly putting herself in danger when she was due to give birth any day) was chilling, and her attitude to the people around her often deeply selfish (she's particularly horrible to Petra's genuinely kind brother). She seems incapable of viewing circumstances from any but her own perspective, and has no sympathy with anyone who doesn't share her views (she clearly has absolutely no time for any kind of religion, and is pretty horrible to the Catholic priest who plays a tragic role in the drama - mind you, judging from her inability to differentiate between 'moral' and 'venial' sins in her print it's clear Welsh isn't much interested in Catholicism either). As the story went on I found myself disliking Jane more and more (and so naturally I became more inclined to disbelieve her story). This might not have mattered so much if there had been other sympathetic characters in the story but (with the exception of Tielo and occasionally Petra) there weren't really. We also learnt frustratingly little about Anna, the object of Jane's crusade, or about what in Jane's past may have turned her into such a suspicious and ultimately vindictive person.
I have chosen to give the book four stars as I felt the atmosphere of suspense was brilliantly done, the essential ideas were interesting and I loved the German setting. However, as a psychological drama I found it claustrophobic and unsatisfying. I will read some more Welsh, but can't see her becoming one of my favourite writers.
on 14 October 2012
This thriller ratchets up the tension in a relatively quiet and subtle way. There are no gunshots, no trail of dead bodies and no race-against-the-clock chases. This novel thrives on the almost-said, the hinted-at and the careful creation of atmosphere, making it easy to get lost in the world that Louise Welsh has created and to wonder what is really going on.
This is a classic psychological thriller with Jane, our focus character, isolated physically, culturally and socially. For British Jane, living in Berlin with her partner Petra is isolating as her German isn't strong and her late stage pregnancy limits her physically. Alone during the day and alone with her wakefulness at night, she sees and hears things that no-one else does. The book's big question is whether Jane has woven a fantasy around her neighbours, or whether she is in fact the only one to realise the violence going on next door.
Using third person narrative, we see Jane's experience close-up but are also uncertain of exactly what is happening and I'm sure many readers would, like me, vacillate between thinking Jane was losing it slightly, and wondering why no-one believed her. To my mind at least, there is no point as you go through the story at which it is definitively clear what the author wants you to believe. Clearly, Louise Welsh has effectively set up and welcomed us into a shadowy, threatening version of Berlin.
I was pleased to see a lesbian main character, but perhaps a little disappointed to see them inhabiting fairly traditional roles with Jane destined to be a housewife and full time mother and Petra away on business and sometimes taking Jane for granted. But then, our access is heavily filtered through Jane's experience and, although not a first-person narrator, she is still a potentially unreliable one.
All in all, I enjoyed this as a complex and often gripping thriller. This isn't one for those who like their crime/thriller novels neatly tied with a bow - there is no 'gathered in the drawing room' exposition at the end. I'd say it's more literary than blockbuster - gently tense yet still gripping.
Heavily pregnant Jane has just moved to Berlin to live with her partner Petra. In contrast to Glaswegian Jane, Petra is a German banker who runs every aspect of the couple's life, from the furnishing of their apartment to the choice of sperm donor for their baby. From the start the cracks in the couple's relationship reveal themselves - echoed by the sinister derelict backhouse which overlooks their own minimalist apartment. As Petra works Jane awaits the arrival of their baby, gradually becoming more drawn into the past of the building and the lives of their neighbours, especially her sinister neighbour Alban Mann and his fragile daughter whom she suspects of being abused.
As the time of the birth nears Jane becomes more and more concerned, and more secrets and sinister facts are revealed. Are Jane's suspicions justified or is she projecting her own troubled past onto those around her? "The Girl on the Stairs" is an atmospheric book and Welsh succeeds in building a creepy atmosphere within the Berlin setting. The novel is told entirely in the third person from Jane's perspective and sometimes the many sentences all having Jane as the subject started to feel quite clunky, dragging the narrative down. I did enjoy this book, and Welsh is a talented writer, but sometimes I wished it had a bit more spark to it.
on 11 July 2012
I find this quite a hard book to review as, in a sense, I don't like it very much. However I do think it is quite well written and very evocative with some interesting characters in. Let me first say I have read two previous Louise Welsh novels and enjoyed them so I was looking forward to reading this. The product description covers the basics of the story well enough so I'll not repeat that. The book is short at barely 200 pages and almost feels like it was written for film rather than anything else (& would work very well in that way). It has a real "film noir" feel to it with the only "colour" being "The girl on the stairs". The dark side of Berlin and its history comes over strongly with street walkers and echoes of the past throughout.
I'm not sure I felt the characters were well developed though some were enjoyable (the Becker's who live downstairs particularly). Equally it was hard to like any of the main characters. It is an unsettling story - dark and edgy and I'm not sure it was ultimately rewarding though it is somewhat compelling and certainly was not a book I would leave unfinished. In the end I did enjoy reading it but this is not the best work of a very good author for me. It might be more 3.5 than 4 star for me personally.
on 18 August 2014
I am a huge Louise Welch fan so I read this book thinking that it was going to be similar to her masterpiece,; The Cutting Room, it did not disappoint. I really enjoy any novel that has Berlin as a background and that setting really enhanced the narrative. Also, the development of the characters; Jane, Petra, Anna, and Doctor Mann was done brilliantly. The ending of the novel was totally unpredictable and surprising. Louise Welch always has a bit of voyeuristic appeal in her novels and again, this had that special element, not overdone, but enough to keep it interesting. I am looking forward to the next book, although I think it may be awhile.
I tried to purchase the book on Amazon, but no joy. Last week I was in Dufftown, Scotland and found the book on the featured book table. I was surprised to learn that there are a great many books in the UK and Scotland that are not available on the US amazon site. I have now started checking amazon.uk.com as well as US amazon. It was easy to do, my log in and password worked well on the UK site. Now I need to figure out how to handle the shipping which will probably be a challenge.
Jane is already six months pregnant when she travels to Berlin to move into an apartment with her partner Petra. She hoped to find loving domesticity there but the reality is very different.
There is an unfolding sense of isolation as Jane finds herself alone for long hours. She has no friends in the city and her German is far from fluent. But soon the isolation becomes more threatening. She is convinced dark things are happening but rather than ignore them she feels a responsibility to a vulnerable young neighbour. She is conflicted with questions. Is young Anna being abused? Is there a body hidden nearby? Has someone entered her flat while she was sleeping? Or are these ideas simply the paranoia of a pregnant woman suffering from hormonal moods swings?
The tension is kept up right from the first few pages and we wonder if this will be a conventional thriller or a creepy ghost story. The ambivalence and the uncertainties remain right to the end. We know that Jane is sincere - but we don't know if she is delusional.....
Very sparely written - hardly a superfluous sentence. Another great read from Louise Welsh.
on 11 December 2012
I've gone for three stars here mainly because the premise was a good one but it fell short of mastery for me. As a thriller it could have developed more tension if the heroine (Jane) was more likeable and three dimensional. Relocating to be with a partner without income of your own, moving to Germany being unable to speak much of the language and just concentrating on being pregnant is always going to be difficult and would put even the feistiest heroine at a disadvantage.
Jane unfortunately is too much of a doormat to make me really concerned about her. I would have prefered her to be more powerful in her partnership with Petra and to have added domestic tension between the partners to the mix. If a flat rented to raise a child in with a graveyard to the front, street walkers, awful maintainance standards and a spooky derelict building to the rear is not ripe to be a constant source of tense, heated arguements with your well heeled partner what is?
The cliche of 'the little woman' Jane and her uber cool partner Petra grated a bit to be honest. Why have a lesbian couple if roles are to be so traditional in terms of provider and homemaker in the story, what point does it serve? How can someone who feels so strongly about the suspected abuse of a neighbours child due to her past history cop out to such a degree in her own life and expect it to seem real to the reader?