If I had done the list of forty books/authors to read before I turn forty back when I turned thirty earlier in the year then Louise Welsh would have been one of the authors on that list. I know many of you would imagine that list would have some of the classic authors on, and indeed it will, but there are many modern and contemporary authors that I have been meaning to try, Welsh is one of them as so many people have recommended I read one of her novels. As it is I still haven’t made that list, though I have been mulling it over again. I have, however, finally read Louise Welsh and I don’t think that ‘The Girl on the Stairs’, her fifth and latest novel, will be the only and last time I read one of her thrillers.
John Murray Publishing, hardback, 2012, fiction, 278 pages, kindly sent by the publishers
Modern day Berlin is the setting for ‘The Girl on the Stairs’, as Jane moves from Scotland to the trendy area of Mitte to be with her high flying businesswoman girlfriend Petra. However being heavily pregnant with rather a lot of time on your hands in a new and strange to you city can feel quite isolating especially when you have neighbours you are rather uncertain about. Directly next door it is the relationship between father and daughter, Albert and Anna Mann, who Jane hears screaming at each other one night. Anna, just thirteen though looking rather inappropriately older, is then seen with bruises, could there be abuse going on next door and where is the mother? As Jane meets more her other neighbours, Karl and Heike Becker, Heike announces that Greta was killed by Albert and buried under the creepy ruined backhouse between the apartments and the local graveyard. Could the ramblings of a woman with early dementia be true and if so is Anna a young girl in a lot of danger with no one to protect her?
Louise Welsh plays a very clever game with her readers as ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ continues. Jane decides that she needs to find out more about the Mann’s and Greta in the hope of possibly saving a young girl from possible abuse. Is she doing this because she is soon to be a mother herself of with too much time on her hands, and the saying ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ came to mind for me, is she imagining things from too much time on her own in a city she doesn’t know and with a whole lot of hormones and conflicting feelings to do with her pregnancy. Do we believe Jane or do we think she might have cabin, well swanky apartment, fever?
I have to confess that somewhere in the middle I did have a break from the book, but it was one of those breaks you aren’t sure why you needed or how it happened. You know sometimes you pick up a book its going really well and then suddenly you realise you’re reading something else? That sounds like a rather damning thing to say about any book, weirdly I think in the case of ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ it is a compliment. Welsh’s writing, the situation she creates for Jane and the clinging atmosphere of the novel all become quite headily claustrophobic. Interestingly you start to understand Jane and the predicament she is in and why she could be going a little loopy, if indeed she is. I felt I needed some space now and again to breathe and escape (something that alas Jane cannot do) and that is why I stopped in the middle of the book I think. The book stayed with me though and so I carried on and then couldn’t quite put it down again.
The atmosphere of the book is one of the things that I most enjoyed about it. ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ has a delightful mixture of the Gothic and the fairytale elements to it. We have the young girl in danger (the cover of the book makes me think of Red Riding Hood, but who is the wolf?), the old graveyard, the women of ill repute, the creepy abandoned backhouse and possible ghosts and murder. It also has the history and atmosphere Berlin a city renowned for its past, its divide and as Jane is told “This city is full of ghosts, most of them harmless. It’s the living you have to watch out for.”
Louise Welsh also packs a huge amount into ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ as it is filled with plot, many twists and several big themes. We have homophobia, the Catholic Church, child abuse, dementia, sperm donation, sibling relationships, possible infidelity… this book is brimming. This occasionally I felt, whilst brilliant, was to the cost of some of the characters. Jane is a fascinating psychological character yet because the whole book rests on whether or not she might be bonkers there is only so much Welsh can show and tell, fair enough though with no real back story etc she is occasionally a little under written, the same with the Mann’s for they are the mystery initially and heart of the story. However it was characters like Petra and her brother, her bosses partner Jurgen etc that not only didn’t seem fully formed, I just didn’t like them – again though this could have been part of the whole darkness of the book, and to be fair when the denouement came I was still unsure what was and wasn’t real and then there were a couple of brilliant, brilliant twists. Swings and roundabouts!
Overall I enjoyed ‘The Girl on the Stairs’. I had a few hiccups with it along the way but really those were all called for, the claustrophobia and the hidden characterisations etc, because of the possibility or not of the mystery at the heart of the novel. If you want an unusual and gothic feeling thriller then I would steer you in the direction of this book. I certainly finished the book wanting to try more of Welsh’s work myself.
So who else has read ‘The Girl on the Stairs’ and what did you think? Which of Louise Welsh’s other novels have you read and what did you make of them, would you recommend any to me for future reading?