Jon Murray (2013) (first published 2012) | 293 pages
I don’t often give books the 5-star rating on Goodreads. Don’t get me wrong, this is certainly not the best book I’ve ever read, and it certainly isn’t going to win any rewards or be remembered hundreds of years into the future (I assume… we’ll see). However, for some reason it just felt right giving this book – obscure and purposely neglected on my shelf for a year or so before reading – a damn good score, when every other book I’ve read this year has been given lesser, peasant ratings.
I’m crazy. Definitely.
The Girl on the Stairs is a book centred on one single character – Jane Logan – who has moved to Berlin heavily pregnant with her first child. Her partner, Petra, works a lot and is barely there. Her neighbours, the Manns, provide her with practically the only source of entertainment and occupation she has during her long, lonely days: Jane is convinced that Alban Mann is abusing his daughter, Anna, and goes out of her way to try and convince everyone of that fact, facing quite a bit of hostility and disbelief on the way. It’s quite a thriller, although there’s barely any action – and the twists that Welsh throws in are presented in such a calm and collected way, that you do, often, miss them. The action comes with the growing paranoia of Jane, the mystery of the abandoned building out the back of their apartment that Jane becomes obsessed with, and the extreme loneliness this author manages to portray.
There is only one reason I marked this book as 5 stars rather than 4, despite any flaws it may have, and that’s because of the way this loneliness is written. The apartment houses only Jane and Petra, and with Petra heading off to work the day after Jane arrives, Jane is immediately set off to care for herself in an unfamiliar country. She speaks barely any German, so going outside is quite a big deal for her; and she knows no one else in the area aside from Petra’s twin brother and his family. The extreme isolation Jane feels is very well portrayed in writing. You could even call it creepy – the way Jane acts entirely on her own, the way the baby inside Jane is given an alien-like quality in its descriptions, and the way paranoia grows when Jane has nothing else to occupy her mind with. As the reader, you begin to lose trust in the world around Jane just as much as she does; and when Jane begins to believe something, no matter how illogical it may be, you find yourself believing her completely. The world around her, even after she’s lived there for a few months, still feels completely alien; and the people, no matter how much she gets to know them, are still portrayed as being not trustworthy.
Later in the book, when all of the distrust climaxes, it suddenly feels like everyone is against her. But while Jane, at this point, has grown a thick skin, I found myself worrying and cowering away from the other characters in the book. It felt like they were against me; I felt just as targeted as Jane, just as lonely. And that was very, very creepy.
The writing, in that sense, is very powerful. I don’t know exactly how Louise Welsh did it, but somehow this book provoked a strong feeling of dread and loneliness in me that no other book has before. It was suffocating, and addictive; just like Jane’s obsession with Anna Mann, and the lies and uncertainty surrounding everyone outside of the little apartment, I couldn’t put this book down because I got so intrigued – and, in a way, so scared – of this world the author had created. And the best – or rather, worst – thing was, we’re not sure just how much is a figment of Jane’s imagination. A lot of what happens is extremely weird, like shadows appearing in Jane’s bedroom, and lights flickering in the darkened windows of the backhouse – some of which are explained, but others left alone for the reader’s interpretation. I finished this book in 5 days – very quick for me in recent years – and that was because every time I walked away from it, the world containing Jane lingered in my memories – visual, sensory memories – and I just had to go back and see the story through.
I don’t know if anything I say can do justice for how this book made me feel. It’s crazy. While I’ll probably think of dozens of flaws later on, after I’ve let the book stew for a bit, right now all I can think of are the good details of this novel: the strength and determination of Jane, to stand up for what she truly believes and her insistence to not give up; the cold, busy setting of Berlin, frightfully similar to the places I’m used to but also portrayed as entirely unfamiliar; the way the narrative doesn’t spoon-feed you details of Jane’s life, preventing you from truly getting to know your protagonist; and the way the abandoned backhouse, dark, broken and trashed, is personified, reflecting the downfall of the Mann family since the disappearance of Anna’s mother, Greta, and the growing dementia of a downstairs neighbour, Frau Becker. I feel that the sheer power of the physical writing completely overshadows any imperfections this novel may have, and if that makes me subjective and gushy, then so be it. It’s not often I grant 5 stars, after all.