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The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

The Girl on the Stairs (2012)

by Louise Welsh

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Cleverly done, walking the line all the way through of what is real and what the imaginings of a heavily pregnant woman, an old slightly deranged woman, and two men with things in their past to hide. Just a bit detached for me, as I couldn't really like any of the characters. ( )
  jkdavies | Jun 14, 2016 |
If you enjoy ambiguity and unreliable narrators, you'll love this.

'The Girl on the Stairs' is Louise Welsh's fifth novel but the first I've read (thanks book group!). After this, I'll definitely be checking out her back catalogue.

What's it about?

Heavily pregnant Jane has just moved to Berlin with her Lebenspartner. While Petra works, Jane explores her immediate environs and quickly fixates on her neighbours: a single father and his teenage daughter, Anna. After Jane hears the father screaming at his child she decides that the girl must be protected, whether she wants it or not...

What's it like?

This is an engrossing psychological chiller with a not entirely likeable protagonist. *

Jane smokes, regularly risks her own safety and that of her unborn child and is often unnecessarily defiant. ('Put that up your flue and smoke it' she thinks as she informs the local priest of her gay relationship. And yet she somehow draws your sympathy despite herself. Using myriad small details Welsh subtly implies that Jane has been the childhood victim of male abuse and that this is where her desperation to save Anna springs from.

Gradually the reader is drawn into an impenetrable puzzle. Is Jane reading Alban Mann and his relationship with his daughter inaccurately? If so, why doesn't Anna simply deny it? Is Jane starving herself into psychosis? Or is the doctor as dangerous as she believes? Welsh's skill can be seen in the way that, even at the end of the book, certain elements remain ambiguous. As the narrative perspective always follows Jane, it is impossible to know for sure what motivates any of the other characters.

Petra plays the pragmatic, reliable (very German!) foil to Jane's emotional turmoil, ("All men pay for sex",) but when Welsh removes her from the scene entirely (a week long work trip), all the tensions come bubbling to a head.

As the action became more dramatic, I was genuinely gripped by the developments and, although the reader can see far more clearly than Jane does, there are still some twists and turns in the final few pages. These are believable - and utterly chilling.

A controversial story?

One review I read surprised me by suggesting that this book pushed an LGBT agenda. I disagree entirely; the fact that Petra and Jane have a loving relationship is presented in a very similar way to other relationships in a similar position. They have sex, they argue, Jane sometimes resents Petra's ability to work and earn money while she is expected to stay at home. Jane sometimes seems to anticipate trouble, ('The taxi driver...didn't say anything, not even when she took Petra's face in her hands and kissed her on the lips',) even possibly to almost desire it, but when abuse does come her way it's obviously related to her investigation of her neighbours rather than a genuine anger at her sexuality.

On a different note, a feminist reader might be concerned by the implication that pregnancy can cause a woman to be emotionally unstable, even dangerously deranged. Unfortunately, it is a (slim) possibility so I have no problem with it being fictionalised. Jane is clearly not intended to be an everywoman.

Final thoughts

I've never been to Berlin so can't comment on the accuracy of the setting but Welsh focuses primarily on Jane's immediate surroundings and the claustrophobia of those is convincingly evolved.

The epilogue builds well on the chilling events of the final chapters and leaves the reader with a lot to think about.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and will definitely be looking out for Welsh's previous novels. Now the question is just where to start. Suggestions welcomed!

* I'm not suggesting that female protagonists should be likeable, or even that likeability is a particularly relevant assessment criteria when discussing fictional characters (see discussion here), but the fact remains that she is quite an ambivalent character. ( )
  brokenangelkisses | Jan 9, 2015 |
Slow to start and quick to end, but an enjoyable read nonetheless. Would certainly read more by Welsh. ( )
  hscherry | Aug 15, 2014 |
Louise Welsh had me with The Cutting Room, in which I discovered that a female author could write a crime novel as dark and relentless as any man out there. While none of her other novels have attained that level of gritty hopelessness, I have enjoyed them. The Girl on the Stairs is more psychological suspense than noir, telling the story of Jane, who has moved to Berlin in the final months of her pregnancy to be with her partner, Petra. Their apartment is in an old, but modernized building, with a derelict building behind it. Jane is alone most of the day and isolated by her lack of German and of friends in the city. In the apartment next door live a thirteen year old girl and her father, and Jane becomes convinced that he is abusing his daughter. ( )
  RidgewayGirl | Mar 27, 2014 |
One of the things that makes Louise Welsh one of my favourite authors is the way you just never know what to expect when a new novel arrives.

In THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS Jane Logan moves to Berlin to be with her partner Petra, in the lead up to the birth of their first child. From the moment she arrives there's something wrong. Jane is uneasy in their chic, upmarket apartment, where amongst lots of other oddities, there are shadows on the stairs and a neighbour's daughter who Jane is sure is in danger.

A psychological mystery, the book is chilling and discomforting. There's something about the fears that Jane develops that don't quite ring true. Of course the world is seen through Jane's eyes, so small events are major and Jane is extremely isolated. By the move to a foreign country, by her partner's work commitments which seem to keep her distant and in an apartment, and neighbourhood that also somehow seems isolated and claustrophobic. Yet, at the same time, the reader can't help but wonder, is Petra really so distant, are things quite that gothic, and dark, is there really something behind Anna, the next door neighbour's daughter hostility, or is Jane imagining things.

As this doubt started to grow there were points where loyalties were compromised. We're supposed to be seeing things from Jane's point of view, yet somehow, Jane doesn't seem to be getting it, is possibly constructing mountains out of molehills. Is she the classic unreliable narrator?

The concentration on the book is very much on a woman whose mind may be playing tricks on her. The physical setting of Berlin contributes little to the narrative other than a feeling of the other, "somewhere foreign", providing isolation. Her pregnancy, her partner's pre-occupation outside the home, all provide a vehicle for pulling the focus back to Jane, back into Jane's head, back into Jane's overwhelming imagination.

As I'd expect from this author, I'd no idea how THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS would evolve when I started it, and it did take quite a while to twig what was going on. I didn't particularly warm to Jane, found her viewpoint unsympathetic and a bit offputting. The introspection was uncomfortable, the isolation palpable. Despite all that, there was something very compelling about the story that dragged me into it. Right to the sort of ending that I love - subtle, unexpected, unsettling, challenging.

http://www.austcrimefiction.org/review/girl-stairs-louise-welsh ( )
1 vote austcrimefiction | Mar 19, 2013 |
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Jane is pregnant and has moved to Berlin to live with her lover. The women's chic new apartment is in a trendy part of the city but Jane finds herself increasingly uneasy there. She conceives a dread of the derelict backhouse across the courtyard and begins to suspect something sinister is happening in the flat next door.… (more)

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