The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

girlonthestairs_bigGhosts of Berlin

Although billed as a novella, Louise Welsh’s fifth book is anything but slight; its layers build to hint at a story much deeper than the central plot.

Jane Logan, heavily pregnant and unable to speak German, moves to Berlin with her older girlfriend Petra. Jane quickly becomes obsessed with the ‘hinterhaus’ (backhouse), a derelict building behind her apartment block. Unable to sleep through the night because of her baby’s in-vitro gymnastics, Jane overheard arguments between her neighbour Alban and his teenage daughter Anna, and sees someone – maybe Anna, though she can’t be sure – slipping into the backhouse. She begins to suspect that Alban is abusing Anna – and to further complicate matters, she is also suspicious of the priest in the nearby church, as he seems unwilling to help her save Anna from her father.

Jane is ambivalent about her pregnancy: although she’d thought that motherhood would help her to grow up, she has already found that the baby makes her more dependent than ever. She continues to smoke although she knows she shouldn’t, asks Petra whether she’s more than just a baby incubator, and becomes suspicious when she finds a photo of Petra with her arms around another woman. As Jane’s obsession with the backhouse and her neighbours grows, she neglects herself and the baby more, often forgetting to eat or sleep. As with all of Welsh’s novels, there is a trip into the dark side of the city; here, it’s so that Jane can find a prostitute and pay her for information about Alban’s estranged wife, Anna’s mother. The central plot concerns Jane’s determination to out Alban as a child-abuser, but the story also encompasses Jane’s uncertainty about becoming a mother, her isolation in a strange country, the hinted-at demons in her past, the treatment of lesbian relationships and modern families, and the weight of history in any European city.

All four of Welsh’s previous books have a male protagonist, but here the female point of view is brilliantly done. Jane is hugely likeable: sparky, confused, determined, and never slipping into cliché or stereotype. The novel’s atmosphere is intensely claustrophobic, and readers may find themselves wishing that Jane would join a mother’s group, an English language group, go on the internet – something, anything, to break out of the chokingly small world she’s created. She does not, of course, and this shrinking of her world makes the tension build even more.

Lesser writers might tie everything up in a neat (and disappointing) bow, but Welsh resists. Although several of the novel’s mysteries are untangled, there is a certain ambiguity to the central question that ensures the story lingers in the reader’s mind. A novel should leave space for the reader, and this one certainly does; the reader is unraveling the mysteries along with Jane, often seeing things that she does not. Ultimately, every reader must figure out the answers for themselves. Compelling, atmospheric, funny and sexy: The Girl on the Stairs shows that crime fiction does not need to shock to have an impact.

Velveteen Rabbit

The Girl on the Stairs
Louise Welsh
John Murray, rrp £16•99, 304pp