Fiction – hardcover; John Murray; 279 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
It can’t be a coincidence that I’ve read two psychological thrillers set in Berlin this year — Melanie Joosten’s Berlin Syndrome and Louise Welsh’s The Girl on the Stairs. The German city has such a rich and chequered history — the Wiemar Republic, Nazi Germany and then the split between East and West — that it is haunted by the ghosts of the past. Louse Welsh capitalises on this eerie atmosphere in this, her fifth and latest, novel.
Life in a strange new neighbourhood
The story revolves around a lesbian couple, Jane and Petra, who live in an old but renovated apartment in an ex-Jewish district of Berlin now populated by streetwalkers and well-to-do professionals. Petra, who is German, has a high-flying job in a bank and is the major breadwinner; Jane, a former bookseller, has just moved to Berlin from Scotland, and is seven months pregnant with their first child.
While Petra is busy at work, Jane is left to her own devices. When she is alone in the apartment, which faces onto a cemetery, she doesn’t feel comfortable and she often gets the sensation she’s being watched. At night she thinks she can see a flame burning in the abandoned building out the back.
There it was again, the faintest glimmer on the other side of the courtyard. Was it a light from somewhere in the building reflecting on a broken window in the derelict backhouse? It flickered again and disappeared. The windows in the backhouse were almost all free of glass. It shone again, faint and wavering; could it be the wind breezing through an unglazed window, causing a flame to tremble?
She can also hear her neighbours — Alban Mann, supposedly a respected doctor, and his 13-year-old daughter, Anna — arguing through the wall or in the stairwell. On one occasion she hears Herr Mann call his daughter a whore and on another she notices that Anna has a bruise on her face.
Jane then begins to wonder if Anna, who looks far older than her years and dresses like the streetwalkers that work in the neighbourhood, might be spending her evenings in the backhouse to escape an abusive father.
What would persuade a child to hide in an abandoned building amongst the pigeon droppings and scuttle of rats? What could be so bad that you would prefer the company of ghosts to home?
Jane’s suspicions about Herr Mann are heightened when she meets her downstairs neighbours, an elderly couple, Karl and Heike Becker, who tell her that Herr Mann’s wife went missing several years ago. According to Heike, Herr Mann murdered his wife and buried her under the floorboards, but Heike’s befuddled behaviour suggests she might have dementia — should Jane believe her or not?
Can you trust your neighbour?
The nub of the novel is this: is Alban Mann a murderer and child abuser, or is Jane simply letting her imagination run away with her?
All of Jane’s attempts to help Anna — by approaching her directly and by speaking with a local priest — are thwarted, but you are never quite sure whether she is being told to butt out because she’s a busybody or because she’s onto something. Her persistence — even when her front door is painted with an ugly slogan and the police arrive to warn her off — suggests the latter.
Welsh is very good at building a sense of eminent doom and a rising level of paranoia. In fact, the narrative is so menacing and claustrophobic, I wouldn’t want to read this book if I lived alone.
But by the same token, as with these kinds of psychological thrillers (of which I’ve read dozens and dozens in my time), there can only ever be one outcome: the protagonist has it all right, or she has it all wrong. And I’m afraid that in this case I guessed the over-the-top ending far too easily and felt some elements of the storyline towards the end slightly far-fetched.
But if you like fast-paced heart-hammering reads and don’t mind the odd implausibility in plot, then this is a good one to get the pulse racing. And it’s got enough spooky elements to make it a perfect Halloween-type read. But make sure you lock the doors, the windows — and the attic hatch — first.