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The Girl on the Stairs, By Louise Welsh
Berlin becomes the backdrop for another sinister and stylish mystery from a perfectionist.
Saturday 18 August 2012
Louise Welsh is a rare bird: a thriller writer who takes years over a novel. Her previous full-length book, The Bullet Trick, the story of a conjurer who makes his way to Berlin to try his fortune, came out in 2006. It may be this patient process that produces the intensity and stylistic originality evident in The Girl on the Stairs, which also follows the fortunes of a Scot in Berlin, a city haunted by many ghosts.
Jane, heavily pregnant, has come to Berlin to live with her elegant businesswoman partner, Petra, in a flat which backs on to a sinister derelict building. From her front window Jane can see a churchyard where toddlers play, and this ghoulish setting generates disturbing mysteries. Who is the bruised teenage girl glimpsed on the rotting staircase? Is her father, a polite physician, really abusing her?
Jane's fantasies about her neighbours fill her with a desire to expose brutality and save the girl, but she is surrounded by people she scarcely knows, in a legal system she doesn't understand and by a language she scarcely comprehends. When she seeks refuge with an old couple, the woman's mind is wandering, although it's possible that some rambling recollections are reliable - but which? The police and social services are sceptical and Jane's relationship with her lover begins to crumble through doubt and jealousy.
Throughout, she has additionally the huge burden of responsibility for the child within her as she gets closer to giving birth. But nothing stops her from the dangerous investigation. The details of life in Europe's trendiest city are sharply rendered. Meantime, the reader's anxiety is heightened by a myriad of small tensions: a "child-proof" balcony, a sinister fairy story and an old torture chamber. The strange elderly couple downstairs must play a role, as does the suicidal priest of the nearby church. The imminent birth of the baby gives rise to even more mysteries: who is the father, what is the sex?
Welsh keeps the reader turning to pursue the multiple stories threading through the pages. As for the solutions, they dovetail in the final chapters, but the love of prestidigitation evident in The Bullet Trick' opens multiple possibilities at the end. The writing of crime fiction is, after all, a sort of conjuring trick played on the reader, a welcome deception. Welsh has developed flashing fingers with cards, rabbits and hats, and one can only hope she won't take so long to produce the next show.
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