The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

Hodder and Stoughton, 2013, 298 p.

 The Girl on the Stairs cover

The viewpoint character here is Jane, heavily pregnant and newly arrived in Berlin to stay with her Lebenspartner, Petra, in an apartment block. The room being prepared for the baby is dark and overlooked by a derelict set of flats. Their neighbours are a single man and his daughter, Alban and Anna Mann. Anna is the titular girl on the stairs. Jane overhears Anna’s father shouting at her and sees bruises on her face and so becomes increasingly convinced Anna is being abused, despite Anna’s denials.

She observes Anna in various situations, at a U-Bahn station interacting with older boys, crossing the space towards the derelict flats – a haunt for all sorts of undesirable behaviour – coming out of the downstairs flat, where the Beckers live, going into the nearby church which has a relatively new young priest. On talking with Frau Becker, a woman still mentally scarred by the Russian occupation of Berlin, she is told Mann killed his wife, Greta, and buried her under the floorboards in the flats opposite.

All the while Petra is less than attentive to Jane, out at work all day or off to a conference in Vienna, and Jane’s imagination whirls around, causing her to delve into Anna’s life and unwittingly to set in train a chain of events which will lead to tragedy and a vindication, of sorts.

Via the medium of Mann’s former professional life as a gynaecologist Welsh offers the possibility that Jane’s fears about Anna are a consequence of pregnancy affecting her emotional balance or if they are indeed valid.

Welsh’s writing is smooth and fluid, the novel exquisitely plotted, the psychological motivations and subtleties of the characters utterly believable and the whole is never less than readable and engaging but there was something about it that felt as if it was an exercise verging on by the numbers. Perhaps it was the foreign setting – and in that respect Berlin was an absence here, there was nothing to illustrate the character of the city – but there was something distanced about it, not in the Muriel Spark class of distanced but certainly more surface then depth. Crime aficionados would probably find it fine though.

Pedant’s corner:- “she wanted nothing more but to lie down” (usually ‘than to lie down’,) occasional missing commas before pieces of direct speech, politeness’ (politeness’s,) “aren’t I?” (Jane is Scottish, supposed to be from Glasgow, she would say ‘amn’t I?’) staunch (stanch,) “out of synch” (usually ‘out of sync’.) “The congregation were beginning to” (was beginning to,) focussed (focused.)

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