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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Review: The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

Intelligent and absorbing thriller for fans of literary crime with a psychological focus

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.

From Amazon:

Jane Logan is a stranger to Berlin and she finds the city alive and echoing with the ghosts of its turbulent past. At six months pregnant, she's instructed by her partner Petra to rest and enjoy her new life in Germany. But while Petra is out at work, Jane begins to feel uneasy in their chic apartment. Screams reverberate through the walls, lights flicker in the derelict building that looms over the yard, a shadow passes on the stairs...

Jane meets a neighbour's daughter, a girl whose life she tries to mend, but her involvement only further isolates her. Alone and haunted, Jane fears the worst... but the worst is yet to come.


Published August 2012 by John Murray
My grateful thanks for this review copy
Check out The Girl on the Stairs at Amazon UK

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this one too and found it a refreshing change to some of the crime thrillers I've been reading lately.


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