IT’S AS if Enid Blyton, beginning to cackle into her Horlicks, had turned to the dark side, posting scripts to Alfred Hitchcock.
“Some chilling touches, Enid dearest, but not for me. I’ve sent your bundle to Hammer Horror who don’t so much mind if the audience laughs,” Hitch might have written. Would Hammer Horror (here given a name check by Louise Welsh at a timely moment of over-egged portent) have swallowed the bait?
Nanette Newman faking the accent, could have played Jane, the pregnant young Scotswoman stuck in Berlin in the apartment of her “lebenspartner” Petra. Oliver Reed might have glowered to perfection as Alban Mann, the novel’s ogre. Of the ten main characters, half are dead by the story’s end. I wish I’d cared. By then Jane Logan, present in every scene in the book, has borne a son, referred to as Boy. An upbeat ending possessing its own dark revelation.
The tale begins as Jane flies in to wintry Berlin to stay with Petra in their swish apartment overlooking an ancient churchyard, with, to the rear, a derelict building. In what was once a Jewish neighbourhood, the buildings come burdened with history – ghosts, the Nazi legacy of torture, shootings, murder.
Jane unfortunately is ambushed almost at once by a thicket of similes growing unchecked among the paragraphs: Rooks in the churchyard “hopped among the branches like an assemblage of black-coated Free Church elders … ivy colonised the edge of the cemetery, like seaweed on a shore at low tide. Tendrils crept over headstones old enough to have lost their sting, some leaning at angles, like sailors steadying themselves against the shift of a boat.” Jane observes these similes gathering, and she smokes, kippering Boy, her unseen victim.
In foreign surroundings, not speaking German, she is understandably anxious. Perhaps her imagination is heightened by her patently pregnant condition, possibly making her prone to over-reaction. When, through the wall she hears a scream in the early hours, quickly followed by sounds of sobbing and a man yelling “whore!” she pictures violence, victimisation.
The House of Screams is home to Dr Alban Mann, a gynaecologist, living alone with his daughter Anna, aged 13. Her mother, Greta, Alban’s wife, disappeared many years before and has never been sighted. A flickering light in the derelict building at dead of night, with shadowy figures seen inside, provokes Jane’s notion of ill goings on. Is Greta dead? Are the rumours Jane hears of a body buried inside the abandoned building somehow connected to Greta’s absence?
Jane’s suspicions deserve a simile to describe them. They are Vesuvian. When later she comes upon Alban chatting with prostitutes on the streets, and spots Anna’s overly intimate congress in public with skinheads, Jane’s concerns start to overflow.
She accuses the doctor of neglect, if not of abuse. He is appalled. His daughter supports him. Jane’s state of mind is rendered more fragile by Petra’s absence, off on business for a week, leaving Jane alone, prey to her fancies.
Jane and Petra’s intimate relationship, terse yet loving, is the novel’s grounded core. They’ve been partners for six years, at first in Scotland, where Jane ran a bookshop. Welsh provides them with little back-story, but she brings them to life with the book’s most credible dialogue. Petra’s absence signals a down tilt. Her brother Tielo (is he Boy’s father?) provides Jane’s back-up, lifting the mood.
Welsh increases the novel’s tension and Jane’s conviction that Mann is abusing Anna’s vulnerable state. Determination to get to the bottom of Greta’s fate underscores the sense that, at all costs, Jane will make Mann pay for what she believes are his serial crimes. Soon elderly neighbours start to blab, and the local priest makes cryptic remarks, and then a prostitute spills a few beans, and you know Jane’s obsession can only grow.
Where lies the truth about Greta Mann? The truth about Alban and Anna’s relationship? Can it be, as Jane suspects, that the doctor, rattled, has set his sights on getting rid of his Scottish accuser?
Or is this merely Jane’s paranoia? Welsh, a mistress of ambiguity, keeps us uncertain right to the end, which when it comes, provides a generous surfeit of corpses, not a few lies, and perhaps the most gullible police force since they retired the Keystone Cops.
• Louise Welsh is at the Edinburgh book festival tomorrow
The Girl on the Stairs
by Louise Welsh
John Murray, 279pp, £16.99
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