Book review: The Girl On The Stairs, Louise Welsh

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John Murray, £16.99

LOUISE Welsh’s first ­novel with her new publisher is a slow-building but highly effective mystery, told by the kind of unreliable narrator able to rival the very best at keeping you guessing. Playing on our assumptions about young girls and pregnant women, Welsh shows her political side as always, toying with gender stereotypes, hoping to unsettle us and, possibly, even shame us a little.

When Jane, who is pregnant and newly arrived in Berlin to join her lover, Petra, spots a neighbour’s daughter with a bruise on her face, she is determined to investigate. The girl’s father is a rather creepy doctor, who keeps ­assuring her everything with his daughter Anna is perfectly all right, but as Jane increasingly spots the girl out on the streets too heavily made-up and keeping bad company, and hears about the doctor’s wife’s mysterious disappearance, she decides she must intervene.

Welsh heightens the tension with plenty of red herrings and “bumps in the night”, and Jane’s physical state gives her an extra vulnerability. Her worries over her relationship with Petra surface too, as her career-minded partner downplays her concerns. Jane and Petra are meant to be a new kind of “nuclear family” – we don’t know who the father of Jane’s baby is, although we learn that Tielo, Petra’s brother, once offered to help with impregnation, and the theme of unconventional families runs through the novel.

Being “different”, even in a highly cosmopolitan city which seems to embrace difference, is no easy task and both Anna and Jane turn on one another and attack each other’s differences – Jane criticises Anna’s clothing and make-up in an attempt to get to the root of her problems, whilst Anna throws back insults about Jane’s lesbian relationship. The darkness at the heart of this tale is not just the darkness of ruined buildings and missing women; it is also the darkness at the heart of family and of ­society.

Edinburgh International Book Festival, 12 August, 7pm