Welsh, Louise - 'The Girl on the Stairs'
The girl on the stairs is a thirteen-year-old girl called Anna, dressed in a red coat, and living in the apartment next door to Jane and Petra. Jane, in a partnership with Petra, has just given up her job, and moved from the UK to be with Petra in Berlin. The move is prompted by the fact that she is in the last stages of pregnancy, and Jane and Petra plan to bring up the baby together. But, while Petra is out all day at her demanding job, Jane, who barely speaks German, has time to wander about and brood.
She can't help but notice the behaviour of her neighbour, Herr Doctor Alban Mann, the landlord, and his wayward teenage daughter Anna. Greta, Anna's mother disappeared some while ago but no-one seems to know what happened to her. Left to bring up Anna on his own, Alban seems to be finding it difficult to control Anna's behaviour. Jane even suspects him of abusing her, and thinks it is her duty to help. But Anna herself claims she is not being abused and is quite antagonistic.
Moreover, when Jane wakes up in the middle of the night, she notices someone mysterious moving about in the abandoned building (the 'backhouse') behind the block of flats where they live. Who is it? Are they searching for something? The elderly couple downstairs seem to know something, but what? And why is the priest in the nearby church so unfriendly?
As the story develops, Jane's obsession with Anna and the uncertainty of what happened to Anna's mother dominates. Seemingly a kind of madness drives Jane's behaviour. The implication being that a pregnant woman, left alone all day in a strange place, would of course start to imagine things (rather like Rosemary, in the Polanski film, Rosemary's Baby). Ultimately, this leads to a rather dramatic and chilling conclusion.
I usually like Louise Welsh's books, and was looking forward to reading this one. However, I found it rather more difficult than usual to engage with it. The descriptions of Petra and Jane's relationship were a bit tedious. Instead of a gradual uncovering of the underlying truth, there was just an general racking up of tension through Jane's non-rational obsession with Anna. The dramatic ending to the book seems to spring from some final act of madness on Jane's part, and I found it a bit unsatisfying. All in all, I was a bit disappointed. Not a bad read, but not one of Louise Welsh's best.
Michelle Peckham, England