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.