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by Louise Welsh
John Murray, August 2012
288 pages
16.99 GBP
ISBN: 1848546483

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Jane Logan is six months pregnant. She's left her life in London behind and moved to Berlin to be with her partner, Petra. Everything is different: the language, the people, the city and even, it seems, her girlfriend. Petra is loving and concerned, but despite Jane's feeling of dislocation, Petra's business trips still take her out of town on a regular basis, leaving Jane alone in their apartment overlooking a derelict building that looms over the back yard. Jane is drawn to spending time in what will be the nursery, looking out at the gloomy view and wondering what secrets the old house holds.

When she hears voices raised in anger in the neighbouring flat, Jane is determined to find out what is going on behind closed doors. When she meets rebellious teenager Anna and her father, Jane wonders which of them is in the right. Is Alban Mann a loving father or something more sinister? As Jane's involvement with the Manns deepens, she discovers links to the nearby church and starts to immerse herself in the story of Anna's mother, a prostitute who abandoned her husband and baby daughter and is increasingly determined to uncover the truth, even though everyone else thinks it's none of her business.

In Petra's absence on an extended business trip, Jane is the victim of unpleasant graffiti on the door of their flat and becomes convinced that someone is coming into the apartment at night. The creeping sense of isolation is positively palpable and the book takes a distinctly sinister turn, aided by the narrative device of giving Anna a red coat, presumably deliberately intended to evoke the chilling atmosphere of the Daphne du Maurier classic DON'T LOOK NOW.

THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS is a competent psychological thriller, but as an examination of the relationship between the two main characters, it is somewhat less successful. While Jane becomes increasingly fragile, Petra, the woman for whom Jane has left her old life behind, remains something of a shadow, not terribly substantial in her characterization, and at times verging on a caricature of a brisk businesswoman, as she dismisses Jane's concerns. Frankly, it is hard to see what Jane sees in her at all.

The ending, whilst not wholly a surprise, approaches at admirable speed, and manages to provide some shocks amidst some other, rather more predictable, elements. By consciously or unconsciously inviting comparisons with DON'T LOOK NOW, Louise Welsh set the bar very high for herself and whether or not she manages to clear it is something on which no doubt reader opinion will differ. But despite that slight qualm, she has certainly succeeded in delivering a very plausible novel of suspense and obsession.

Linda Wilson is a writer, and retired solicitor, with an interest in archaeology and cave art, who now divides her time between England and France.

Reviewed by Linda Wilson, August 2012

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