Drowning In Berlin: A Review Of Louise Welsh’s The Girl On The Stairs…

A new Louise Welsh novel is always a reason to celebrate. Since her stunning debut The Cutting Room, which I foist on people the same way I do albums by The Blue Nile, she has taken her readers down dark alleyways and into dangerous situations with a relish that could be described as gleefully indecent.

Her latest novel, The Girl on the Stairs, is a modern Gothic nightmare, one both of its time and out of time, which owes a debt to classic horror cinema, particularly Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, (or at least Daphne Du Maurier’s source novel) but also Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s The Shining.

All of those films ask us to consider those times when individuals are pushed to extremes, with the physical affecting the psychological, whether it be coping with pregnancy, grief or isolation. Often in times of stress people imagine things which aren’t there or events which didn’t occur, or perhaps they see things which are there, but everyone else is too preoccupied to notice. In the case of The Girl on the Stairs, no work and no play makes Jane an inquisitive and suspicious woman.

We are well used to unreliable narrators, but rarely has one been as certain in their version of events as the central character of Jane is. Pregnant and newly housed in the relatively unfamiliar surroundings of Berlin, often left alone as her partner Petra travels for work, Jane becomes obsessed with the young teen who lives next door. She quickly becomes convinced that the girl, whose name is Anna, is being abused by her father, and as she sets out trying to prove it all sorts of other secrets are uncovered. Often these secrets take the form of (sub)urban myths, tales told by an old woman whose mind often wanders, opposing points of view and the piecing together of many, possibly unrelated, events.

When you add to these the vehement and venomous denials by Anna herself, and her father’s good name with (most) of the community, it means that the reader has to take close note of all the other characters and their stories in an attempt to discover if Jane has a valid case. Welsh deals in shadows and whispers. We never know who to believe or what has been going on and therefore are never certain where our sympathies lie. What soon becomes clear is that no matter if Jane is proved right or wrong, this is ultimately a tragic novel where the idea of ‘whodunnit’ means little when placed against the greater consideration of ‘why’.

There is a visceral quality to the writing which has to do with the horror of the mind and the horror of the mundane. As in the Cutting Room, where the discovery of images of fetishised torture and perhaps murder sparks the narrator Rilke’s investigations, so The Girl on the Stairs asks us to consider what goes on behind the closed doors and pulled curtains of even the most desirable addresses. As with Welsh’s other novels the plot is based on an individual’s obsession with uncovering what increasingly is revealed as a terrible truth. As the book moves towards its conclusion every character seems under threat in one way or another. We are worried about Jane, not only for what might happen to her, but for what she might do to others. This is writing to match Hitchcock at his paranoid best.
Welsh asks us to face ideas which are culturally uncomfortable and even taboo. Women’s capability for violence, the often institutional abuse of trust and power, the possible bond between someone who is abused and their abuser,  the sexuality of young teenagers, and the ability of the mind to deceive the most rational person. Her books are not about the supernatural, although they may cause us to think that for a while. For Welsh, the ability for mankind to create its own unspeakable horror is quite enough. Don’t mistake this as writing that’s aim is simply to shock or thrill. This is deadly serious.
Louise Welsh writes in the fine tradition of James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Douglas Brown in that she uses our base fears and our folk tales to remind us that concepts of good and evil are man made. After the thrills and chills which drive the novel to its conclusion there are questions left which we can’t ignore. Just what are we capable of and how easily can we be deceived by others, and more frighteningly, how easily do we deceive ourselves?  Few things can scare us like our own imagination, and few understand that better than Louise Welsh.
You can read about and listen to the Scots Whay Hae! podcast with Louise Welsh that was recorded last year by clicking here. 

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