The Girl On The Stairs by Louise Welsh
|The Girl On The Stairs by Louise Welsh|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: Psychological drama set in modern-day Berlin, where pregnant and largely alone Jane Logan is concerned about the fate of her young neighbour.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 288||Date: August 2012|
|Publisher: John Murray|
|External links: Author's website|
Jane Logan is seven months pregnant when she moves to Berlin to be with her girlfriend, Petra. Petra is the smart one: older, more chic and with a high-flying job in banking. It had been Petra's idea to have a baby, and Jane had taken a long time to say yes. But now it's nearly here. She's quit her job, cut her credit cards in half and left her old life behind, not realising just how utterly dependent she is making herself.
She never used to mind Petra's business trips: they were an excuse to slob out for a week or so, be with her other friends or on her own. It's different now. As Petra heads off for a week in Vienna, Jane is left alone in a city she doesn't know, where she has no friends other than Petra's twin brother and his family. She doesn't even speak the language.
Worse yet, she's made an enemy of the neighbours. She first meets Alban Mann through the wall, hearing swearing at his daughter, calling her a whore.
They meet face-to-face next day on the landing where he's in the middle of another slanging match with Anna, thirteen going on thirty with her sharp stilettos and sharper lipstick. The makeup doesn't quite cover the bruises.
Jane is determined that Mann is abusing his daughter, and equally determined that she will not be one of those who stands by and lets it happen.
Is she right though? Herr Doktor Mann is well respected in the neighbourhood. Anna insists that she got her latest bruise playing baseball.
But Anna walks the streets at night, or hides out in the derelict building at the back of the apartment block.
The downstairs neighbour is convinced that Anna's missing mother is buried in that building, murdered by a jealous husband. But then she is elderly and equally convinced that she is still a teacher and that they must hide from the Russians.
There are echoes of Don't Look Now in Welsh's psychological tale, as the young Anna in her red coat darts about the graveyard at night. Also hints at cold war film noir (if that's not a contradiction) as a slow chase ends up in a darkened, rain wet Berlin railway station, a leap aboard a train without a ticket.
Jane is increasingly isolated. People who should believe her, who should help her, think she's going mad. Maybe she is... she hears things and sees things that can't be there.
But then when she's talked herself into one more dangerous situation... well, she might be lost, alone, seven months pregnant, but she's also a Glaswegian and she's had self-defence training. Fear is something she recognises but has no truck with.
She involves herself in the lives of others, despite all sensible advice to the contrary and she may have to pay a heavy price for it. She too finds herself walking the streets at night.
For all its set pieces though, and they are all here... Catholic priest (check!), menacing old women (check!), screeching rooks (check!), child in danger (check!), prostitutes (check!), skinheads (check!), unhelpful / threatening police officers (check!) ... for all that, it doesn't quite work as a thriller.
The characters aren't as well-defined as I'd expect from Welsh, indeed there's much that is clichéd. Even the lesbian element seems to serve no purpose other than to give someone a reason to hate the couple, beyond them being there. Perhaps the point is that there shouldn't be a point. Maybe we should accept the couple as any couple, but too much is made of the unconventionality of the relationship for that to be so. Plus there is a long backstory from Petra which suggests that Welsh really is trying to make a point of some kind. I'm not sure what it is.
The place too doesn't really take centre stage the way it should for the novel to fully work. Sensibly the author stays clear of the well known landmarks, wandering into what was presumably part of the East of the city, but then assumes that the areas she quotes are as familiar to us as the Ku-damm and the Tiergarten. Because they're not, they need more description than she gives us.
There was also none of the sly humour I've found in some of her previous works.
It isn't a bad novel. It holds the attention purely by virtue of the fundamental mystery as to whether we have a pregnant woman getting delusional or worse, or a wife-murdering, child abusing, mad Doktor with a thing for prostitutes. But that's the point. It holds the attention; it doesn't grab it.
The general press were unstinting in their praise (if the extracted quotes on the web are anything to go by), but for me this is nowhere near Welsh at her best. For that check out Naming the Bones. For real Berlin darkness though you have to go back to the days of the Wall and you can't do better than Le Carré The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Girl On The Stairs by Louise Welsh at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Girl On The Stairs by Louise Welsh at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.