The Girl on the Stairs (2012) by Louise Welsh
Set in contemporary Berlin - a city alive with history like no other - The Girl on the Stairs is the story of Jane, heavily pregnant and new to the city, where she has come to live with her German partner Petra. Lonely and paranoid from the moment of her arrival, Jane's state of mind is exacerbated by the fact that she speaks little German and is often alone in the clinical flat she shares with Petra. When she begins to suspect that her next-door-neighbour Alban Mann is abusing his teenage daughter, she becomes fixated on trying to help the troubled girl, Anna - an obsession that leads to further isolation. She remains convinced of Mann's guilt, even though nobody will believe her apart from an elderly neighbour with an addled memory, and progresses further into danger as she strives to prove her suspicions.
Welsh's narrative conjures up an exceptional sense of atmosphere that permeates everything and really holds your attention, making it a quick, compulsive read. I could picture Jane's claustrophobic, minimalist flat and its bleak surroundings (an abandoned apartment building, a sinister churchyard) in perfect detail, and her constant sense of being watched is palpable. Jane's own history looms large in the plot, influencing the way she reacts to almost everyone she meets and particularly the way she approaches Anna, as does the history of the city itself. The narrative sticks close to Jane's point of view, making her plight easy to sympathise with and her anxieties understandable, yet offers enough perspective that it's easy to understand how irrational her behaviour would seem to an outsider. There is also a clever but subtle feminist slant to the plot - Jane's arguments about the typical behaviour of abusers and their victims contain a lot of good points, intelligently made, but they fit very naturally within the narrative, and it doesn't feel like the author is preaching to the reader.
I have to admit that after all the tension that had been created throughout the book, I found the ending a little anticlimactic. Maybe that was because the rest of the book was so subtle, more about ideas and perception than actions, and the last few chapters became quite melodramatic: I felt like the final cascade of revelations didn't really fit with how creepily effective (or effectively creepy) the story had been up until that point. I did, however, love that there's a real sting right at the end... and the title ends up being rather ironic. Don't worry, that isn't a spoiler, but if you've read the book then you'll know what I mean!
I've been meaning to check out Louise Welsh's work for quite a long time now, and though I get the impression that The Girl on the Stairs is more conventional than her earlier novels, I'm glad I started with this. Despite a slight sense of disappointment about the ending, it was absolutely my kind of story - wintery Berlin, 'ghosts' everywhere, unreliable narrator! - and has stoked my interest in her writing. It took me a while to get hold of a copy of this book - I eventually found it at the library, after many fruitless checks - but it was well worth it.