Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Girl on the Stairs - Louise Welsh

I first came across Louise Welsh almost a decade ago, when her debut novel, The Cutting Room, made a considerable stir. Original and creepy, it manifested a distinctive talent. I have come across one or two less enthusiastic reviews of her later books, but when The Girl on the Stairs came out recently, I determined to give her work another try, and I'm certainly glad I did.

The setting is Berlin, and events are seen from the point of view of Jane, who is pregnant and entering a new phase of her life with her partner Petra. They have moved into a new flat, and the city is vividly portrayed. So is the rather sinister place where they live, and the atmosphere darkens after Jane meets a neighbour, the seemingly amiable Dr Mann, and his bolshy teenage daughter Anna. Jane comes to believe that Mann is abusing his daughter, but nobody is keen to share her concerns, even though another neighbour claims that,years ago, Mann killed Anna's mother, a former prostitute called Greta.

The real pleasure of this book lies in the gradual build-up of suspense and fear. It is very subtly done - a far cry from all those fat, blockbusting books in which serial killers murder victim after victim, inflicting so many indignities on the corpses that the reader starts to feel almost as abused as the deceased. The relationship of the lesbian couple expecting their first child was sensitively portrayed and seemed wholly credible.

I was less sure that the merits of the final pages of the book matched the quality of what had gone before. Despite a flurry of action, there was almost a sense of anti-climax. Suffice to say that the plot is not the most significant element of the book, and one could argue that it's not really meaningful to describe this as a "crime novel", even though crimes are committed in it. Overall, though, it's an extremely well-written story that, despite the lack of action in some parts, is quite haunting. Louise Welsh is a novelist of genuine talent, skilled not only at the description of people and places but also at conveying complex emotional reactions to events that are ambiguous yet undeniably macabre. This last is a gift that surely any writer - not just in the crime genre - would love to have.   

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