Review: Louise Welsh – The Girl on the Stairs

Louise Welsh is an author who other crime fiction readers have been urging me to try for a while. An excellent post by Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist got me thinking about life as an expat and how the tension that often arises from living in an unfamiliar country can work well in a crime novel. Chris Pavone’s recent book The Expats depicted expat life very well although I wasn’t as convinced by the plot. However, The Girl on the Stairs, the latest book by Louise Welsh combined a tense thriller storyline with realistic depictions of the loneliness and disorientation felt by someone new to a country.

Jane has relocated to Berlin from London to join Petra, her German partner. She misses her former flat but as she is in her last months of pregnancy, she realises her old lifestyle can no longer be sustained. She met her partner at a restaurant where city banker Petra was having a dinner with colleagues and Jane was working as a waitress. You get a sense of the imbalance of their relationship from the early days; Jane who was drifting through life and enjoying her small London flat and ambitious Petra was has taken in Berlin a sleek apartment in an old building. Jane becomes obsessed with Anna, a teenage girl who lives in the same apartment block. She believes that the girl is being abused by her father, Doktor Alban Mann. She also becomes obsessed by a derelict building that can be viewed from the back of the apartment and the strange lights that appear in the tenement at night.

Despite the thriller element, this was a book of surprising depth and subtlety. We come to see Jane as an unreliable narrator and we are never sure if her perceptions have been skewed by her disorientation at her new setting, her advanced stage of pregnancy which heightens her senses and makes her fearful about the people around her, or by a genuine fear of the situation in the building. Welsh is very good at subtlety giving details about the dynamics of a relationship and characters seen even fleetingly are brought to life on the page.

Berlin, seen through the eyes of Jane, comes across as provincial city that could be found anywhere in Europe. The effects of the Second World War are still present though and are woven into the narrative with a light touch to increase the sense of menace. As readers, in a few places we are led to believe that we are one step in front of Jane, although again our perceptions are skewed by the impression of malevolence bubbling under the surface.  The denouement when it comes is slightly over the top and it is only here I think we have to suspend disbelief a little. The book was an excellent read and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an engrossing thriller with an unusual setting.

I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher. Other reviews can be found at Notes of Life, Eurocrime and The Little Reader Library.

25 thoughts on “Review: Louise Welsh – The Girl on the Stairs

  1. Sarah – Thank you very much for the kind mention- I appreciate it. Thanks also for the excellent review. It’s got two things in it that tend to intrigue md: an old building with a lot of character and a narrator who may or may not be relaible. I can see why you liked it so much, and I can also see how Jane’s status as an ex-pat in a different environment could affect her perception.

  2. Oh that sounds good! I have really enjoyed a couple of other Louise Welsh books, so should definitely try this one. The Expats is on my Kindle, too, waiting to be read.

  3. Good review Sarah but have to admit I lost patience with this read and ended up scan reading to the end. Just found certain aspects of it too implausible but it gained brownie points for its realistic evocation of Berlin!

  4. I’d like to read this. I like Louise Welsh. Is there much about WWII? I try to avoid the Nazi scourge as much as possible. But I could read this I think.

    • Hi Kathy – in the book there is an old lady who had a ‘bad war;. It’s a minor element in the book and adds to the feeling of menace. I think you should be OK with it.
      Glad you like Louise Welsh’s books.

  5. I have read countless positive reviews of this so will hopefully pick up a copy soon. It sounds so engrossing. I tried out the ex-pat lifestyle in France for 6 months and it was not for me, but I can see how the sense of disorientation and vulnerability you get in the beginning would translate very well to this kind of thriller.

    • It’s interesting how many people already knew about Welsh. I am clearly a bit behind – glad you liked the review Tracy. Just heading over to your site to catch up.

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  7. I really liked this one. Thanks so much for linking to my review Sarah. It was my first book by Louise Welsh but I would definitely read her work again. I loved the tense atmosphere in this one, and the location.

  8. How much menace? I’m such a scaredy-cat for a reader of crime fiction. I won’t be throwing out the garbage at night if I read too much of this!!!

    • Hi Kathy – don’t worry. It’s not scary enough to stop you putting out the rubbish. It just gives you sense of underlying menace with a dramatic denouement.

  9. Pingback: My Top Five Crime Reads of 2012 « crimepieces

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