Chatto & Windus £11.99

Book of Clouds, By Chloe Aridjis

Ghosts from Berlin's past haunt this vivid debut

In the prologue to Chloe Aridjis's exceptional debut novel, young Tatiana and her Mexican family are on a visit to 1980s Berlin when, in a crammed U-Bahn carriage, she finds herself face to face with an old lady who is Adolf Hitler in disguise. Two decades later, Tatiana is back in Berlin, now a resident, the memory of that unsettling encounter still lingering.

Indeed, the past always lingers in Tatiana's adopted city, whose heavily worn layers of history the present only barely conceals. This is a city where you go to a Saturday night party in an old post office and find yourself getting trapped underground in a "Gestapo bowling alley"; a city where everyone you meet has vivid memories of the U-Bahn's "ghost stations", dim places with five centimetres of dust and signs in old Gothic script. It's the city as living palimpsest, with another, barely forgotten layer of city life under every surface, behind every façade, every wall, and another beyond that. Relics of the Stasi (and the Gestapo before them) lurk everywhere; dark places retain the energy of the atrocities committed within them. Temporal planes coexist, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.

Tatiana is employed, appropriately, by a city historian, Dr Weiss, for whom she transcribes notes three days a week and carries out interviews. One such interview introduces her to Jonas Krantz, a meteorologist and, more specifically, a nephologist – a specialist in clouds. Clouds are constantly shifting, Jonas explains, changing, reforming and usurping one another in perpetual flux – just like the past and present. In a terrific deus ex machina at the book's climax, these strange, protean things invade the city, a "sweeping act of condensation" that's utterly weird and yet utterly credible.

One of the lingering delights of this book is its conjuring of the city it inhabits. It's a city that grips Tatiana's interest, but is also resistant to her advances. She is, she finds, so often alone, clinging to the reassuring voice of the S-Bahn announcer for company, struggling vainly to find the comfort of absolute darkness, or absolute silence. Readers who know Berlin will find Aridjis's re-creation of it almost uncanny, achieved with great clarity of vision – you're right there, every moment – but also with such economy, using just a few carefully observed details. Those who do not know the city will feel somehow sure they do by the end of the book.

But while Aridjis seems to be conjuring a whole city out of the mist, her work is principally on a small scale –only three significant characters, a few months, a couple of hundred pages – with upheavals that are personal, not political. And Tatiana's little present seems so fleeting, moving her on swiftly from one apartment to another, from one lonely Sunday to the next. Yet from what we see of the past we know that this apparently fleeting present will leave traces, too, and scars. There are always things that are transient, and there are always things that will survive.

Book of Clouds is a beautifully turned piece of writing of extraordinary assurance. I was going to add "for a first novel" but there's no need, for this is beautiful and assured writing on any terms, and as natural as breathing. Both vivid and dreamlike, at once very precise in its images (a foot poised to rest on the rung of a chair) and also enchantingly broad-brush atmospheric, this is a debut more captivating than any I've read in some time.

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