Fiction – paperback; Scribe Publications; 256 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Melanie Joosten’s debut novel, Berlin Syndrome, is one of the best psychological thrillers I’ve read in quite a while. Think Emma Donahue’s Room crossed with John Fowles’ The Collector with a smidgen of the paranoia present in Nicci French’s work and you’ll have a good idea of what to expect.
Set in Berlin
The book is set in Berlin, Germany, and is divided into two parts.
The first reveals how Clare, an architectural photographer from Australia, meets Andi, an English teacher from Germany, in a foreign city far from home. There is an immediate, if somewhat mysterious, attraction between the pair, and before Clare realises it, her one-night stand has turned into something unexpectedly tender and romantic.
The second explores how their shared love story morphs into a bittersweet nightmare in which Andi keeps Clare captive against her will.
As the title might suggest, Clare develops a kind of Stockholm syndrome in which she can’t quite find it within herself to hate Andi.
Her days and nights feel more real than any have before. Here, in Andi’s apartment, she is living a distillation of her former life. She is, for the first time, living in the present because there is nowhere else to be. Her past and future are far from her reach; she is free from their obligations.
This closely observed psychological drama is a real page turner. It’s creepy and sexy and thought-provoking, too. How did this romance turn into such a dangerous symbiotic relationship? Is Clare really as naive and good-natured as she seems? Will Andi see the error of his ways and let his lover go? Will Clare ever manage to escape?
Of course, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
Drip feed of information
What I particularly liked about Berlin Syndrome is the way in which Joosten offers a drip feed of information that reveals new aspects to each character. I found myself constantly reassessing my views of both Andi and Clare the deeper I got into the story. There were times when I wasn’t sure who was the more pathetic of the two, and my sympathy — and allegiances — switched from character to character depending on what I discovered about them.
I also appreciated the pacing of the story. While it’s told in the third person, Joosten expertly flips between presenting Clare’s side of the story with Andi’s and she does it in such a seamless way that you barely notice the joins. This allows you to see Clare and Andi’s complicated relationship from both perspectives without any loss of momentum — or suspense.
And finally, the choice of Berlin setting is a good one, particularly as the city holds very many secrets of its own.
Berlin Syndrome is a fast-paced, eerie read. It’s part horror story, part sexy romance, but ultimately it’s a mesmirising tale above love, obsession, trust, secrecy and truth.