Review: The Girl on the Stairs; Louise Welsh

Source- I was sent a copy of this novel via the publishers’ promoters. It was acquired free of charge in exchange for a review

John Murray (UK Publishers)

Hardback- 278 pages

 The Girl on the Stairs Review:  Oddly compelling…. 4 Stars

Sometimes I encounter a novel which leaves me scratching my head a bit when I come to reflect on it afterwards. ‘The Behaviour of Moths’ springs to mind in this instance, as does ‘Of Bees and Mist.’

Well, this is another one of those head scratching novels; I liked it—at least I think I did! It was just so oddly sinister and creepy that I’m still making my mind up as to why I found it to be such an intriguing read, as not a whole lot actually happens within the narrative itself.

Pregnant Jane has recently moved to Berlin to be with her partner, Petra. With Petra out working all day and Jane cooped up alone in their flat, she begins to feel a sense of isolation from the outside world, as well as concern for the seemingly abused teenaged girl, Anna, next door. As events slowly unfold and more is learned about the young girl’s mother who seemingly vanished years earlier, the reader comes to wonder whether Jane is merely paranoid or if she has a reason to be suspicious that something more sinister is going on.

Firstly, I must say that I went into this book with absolutely no preconceptions, having a) never read a Louise Welsh book before (though I have heard very good things about her work- particularly ‘The Cutting Room’) and b) being teased by the lack of summary on or in the book jacket! The cover alludes to this being a thriller and I have to say that I loved the shadowy staircase pictured- as well as the somewhat standard ‘red coated figure’ that seems to be becoming more and more the norm these days for book covers. It was both haunting and beautiful.

Speaking of haunting, I certainly found this to be a very atmospheric book, right from the start. Lots of little plot devices were used to create an underlying sense of tension and unease, which might have came across as cliché, but somehow they just seem to work. Right from the start the reader is aware that something unsettling is going to happen, you are just not quite sure what- or when it is going to occur.  Synonymously, with all of this building of tension and unease as well as the mention of past events in Berlin’s history, you are also introduced to an array of characters that may not appear to be whom they seem, and as a reader you feel a sense of distrust towards them all- even towards the narrator.

The plot is a bit slow, admittedly. A heightened sense of claustrophobia is also created as the narrator spends a lot of time cooped up in her flat and staring naked out of a bedroom window, so the pace does seem to plod on a bit at times. I have certainly read psychological thrillers with more engaging storylines than this one, yet a part of me still found this to be a gripping read. It was also quite a short book, which is maybe why I didn’t find myself growing bored with it- had it been longer I would eventually have grown frustrated with it.

I personally wouldn’t call this book ‘masterful’ within the thriller genre but it was certainly a very readable tale and one that encouraged me to turn the pages, if only to find out just how events all played out in the end and just as to what the mystery was around Anna and her parents (you need to hang on- it isn’t unveiled until literally right at the end).  The ending does seem a little bit rushed too given how long the reader has been kept waiting, but it is well done nonetheless.

If you enjoy books that play with your emotions, as well as novels that skilfully weave into them a heightened sense of atmosphere and intrigue, then this is undoubtedly a story you will appreciate.

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