“The Girl On The Stairs” by Louise Welsh: tense, multi-layered thriller that I found deeply satisfying

At the start of “The Girl On The Stairs” I thought I was reading a well-observed description of how dislocating it is to find oneself living in a foreign city, surrounded by people who speak a language you barely understand and who, when they politely switch to flawless English to include you in a conversation, somehow make you feel more isolated and add to your growing sense of cultural incompetence. I recognised the tension that accompanies becoming aware that, even though things here seem to be the same as at home, they are different in important ways that you sense only like a just-beyond-hearing-range high-pitched scream.

It felt real to me and bound me to poor, pregnant, Scottish Jane, living with here urbane partner, Petra, in a flat in Berlin that she did not choose, populated by people she does not know, and in which she is too often alone.

I absorbed her anxiety. I shared her suspicions of her what her neighbour was doing to his daughter, the girl on the stairs, behind closed doors. I admired Jane’s bravery as she decided to act rather than to hide in her apartment and pretend everything was O.K.

Then, bit by bit, I started to doubt. Walsh gave me just enough information to suspect that Jane was not a reliable narrator, that her perception might be skewed, that not everything she described might be true.

Of course, I did not know which parts of Jane’s narration could not be trusted and the foreign location and alien society made it harder for me to make a judgement. Which, of course, meant I was in exactly the same situation as Jane herself.

Walsh then ratcheted up the tension, drawing on the shadows of Berlin’s dark past (the invading Russian Army used rape as a weapon of retribution on a scale that ranks second only to the Japanese in Nanking) and its unpleasant present (prostitution, violent punks, drunks and drug users in the streets and wraps it all in the chill dreariness of a Berlin winter.

The plot is clever, plausible and disclosed with a perfect control of pace.

But it is not the plot that haunts me, it is the perfectly evoked sense of threat that remains my strongest memory of this book. This is a threat that many women experience, that their vulnerability will be translated into punishment at the hands of violent men. This threat, which is not just an absence of safety but an expectation of pain, drives Jane. It taints everything that she sees. It looms over her, cornering her, leaving her with the option of passive surrender or violent rage. This threat is amplified by Jane’s history, by her pregnancy, and by her isolation. But what takes this book beyond the ordinary is that, in many ways, the most threatening thing is the book is Jane herself. I was left feeling that she cast the shadows she lived in. That she evoked, perhaps even provoked, the violence around her. That the girl on the stairs that we should worry about is not the neighbour’s daughter, but Jane herself. That she is damaged and that the damage is contagious.

That notion is paranoid and not entirely rational but it is what the book led me to believe and feel. Which is, perhaps, what the whole book is about.

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