Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel is a gripping tale – Laura Waddell

Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel (Sceptre) is the most fun novel I’ve read this year.

In Other People's Clothes, two students, partly inspired by the Cabaret-style bohemia of Berlin in the 1920s, move to the German capital, but things don't turn out quite as they expect (Picture: Merit Schambach/AFP via Getty Images)
In Other People's Clothes, two students, partly inspired by the Cabaret-style bohemia of Berlin in the 1920s, move to the German capital, but things don't turn out quite as they expect (Picture: Merit Schambach/AFP via Getty Images)

Told at the breathless pace of gossip, full of delicious details as though shared over a bottle of wine with a best friend au fait with both high and low culture, it’s the story of Zoe and Hailey, art students on an academic year abroad in Berlin in 2009.

They take an unconventional apartment, filled with statement pieces such as a retro lip-shaped couch, upon which Hailey compulsively reads books written by the apartment’s owner.

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Beatrice Boch, wearer of a severe black bob, author of romantic thrillers, is away to a Viennese writing retreat to fulfil her latest book contract, leaving behind instructions for the coal heating.

But as the pair begin to despair life in Berlin is not turning out as they hoped – Zoe is struggling with maintaining her own identity amidst bigger personalities, whose details, like hair colour, she sometimes tries on for size; Hailey is unashamedly inspired by Cabaret, and has no time to worry about becoming a cliche, too intent on making this period of her life iconic – they discover a secret door behind a bookcase.

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They suspect Beatrice is spying on them. And so begins a madcap scheme to throw elaborate parties, at first to spite the Berlin club scene that won’t admit them, but then to provoke their shadowy landlord. This, they believe, will be their grand art project, documented in photographs and diaries.

There are a lot of books about barely twenty-somethings, either still suspended in the net of student loans or tentatively making independent steps. The most pedestrian of these make the mistake of believing the fact of their own existence, melancholy in an adult world, is deep enough.

But Other People’s Clothes belongs to a different tradition; here the story of two art students abroad becomes a slowly unravelling thriller, set in the same time period as the Amanda Knox saga and borrowing from its twists and turns.

As things spiral out of control, the reader starts to wonder who, exactly, is holding the reins. I kept reading late into the night to find out, enjoying every moment.

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