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Concrete traps.

August 23, 2011
Berlin Syndrome by Melanie Joosten, Scribe, $29.95

The title of Australian writer Melanie Joosten’s dark debut novel is evidently a nod to Stockholm syndrome, the psychological condition that sees hostages develop empathy towards their captors. Unsurprisingly, Berlin is the setting for Joosten’s captivating study of a situation that is at once horrifying and oddly mundane—a reflection, perhaps, of day-to-day existence behind the Wall in Germany’s once divided capital, of life that must continue even in captivity.Clare is a young Australian photographer who has been commissioned to produce a book about Communist-era architecture. She meets Andi, a German English teacher, while waiting to cross the street in Berlin in 2006; charmed by his malapropisms (he likes to sit and ‘complicate the world’ rather than contemplate it), she ends up going back to his apartment.

But a spur-of-the-moment decision to stay a little longer in Berlin and enjoy a working holiday fling quickly turns into something much more sinister; Andi is so taken with Clare that he decides he simply cannot let her leave. She remains trapped in his apartment, storeys above the ground in a building that has few other occupants, with nothing but herself and her increasingly confused thoughts for company when Andi leaves for work each day.

Joosten’s decision to alternate the narrative between Clare’s and Andi’s perspectives makes this an absorbing and complex psychological thriller, although I’m not sure if I was entirely convinced by either character. But Joosten’s taut pacing and tight prose make this an absolute page-turner, and its deceptively simple plot raises some interesting questions about truth, love, and relationships.

As the title suggests, this is not a straightforward kidnapper-and-victim narrative—Clare reminds herself constantly that she went with Andi of her own volition. Despite the horror of her situation, she cannot eradicate her initial attraction to him, and he brings her gifts and professes that he loves her even as he ensures that she can never venture beyond his front door.

Even in such close proximity, Clare and Andi remain intensely internally focused, never really understanding one another as they struggle to make their peculiar living arrangement work. Clare is torn between her anger at Andi and her reliance on him; Andi is caught between the obvious wrongness of his actions and his inability to control Clare, or to adequately express what he believes is his love for her.

Despite its claustrophobic setting, the backdrop of Berlin and its history looms large, giving Berlin Syndrome a poignant historic dimension. Andi tells Clare that life in former East Berlin ‘wasn’t so hard. It wasn’t how you think’. Experiencing her own version of life behind a wall, Clare’s captivity sometimes seems more tedious than terrible. She longs for Andi’s return from work, filling her days with dull minutiae—itemising everything in the kitchen cupboards, painting pictures on the walls, writing letters she can never send. When Andi gets home, they cook together and talk for hours, acting with almost perverse normality, as though Clare is not trapped in a literal prison of her lover’s making.

Joosten writes most successfully from Clare’s perspective, deftly capturing her increasingly confused state as the days in the apartment bleed into one another, time gradually losing its shape and meaning. As affecting as Clare’s shifting mental state is her changing physicality—not knowing how much time has passed, she examines her legs and skin and face, wondering what she used to look like, feeling the slackness of her underused muscles as they ‘flail beneath the surface of her skin then fall back in relief’.

But I was never wholly convinced by Clare’s attitude towards Andi, which sometimes feels too generous to be believable, particularly in the novel’s early stages. Leaving aside Clare’s unwitting complicity in her situation, she seems to switch too suddenly from anger and resistance to passivity.

Although including Andi’s viewpoint gives the story depth, Joosten’s depiction of his confused inner world doesn’t create a strong enough sense of his character. While I admire her resistance to painting Andi as an entirely bad seed, which would surely undermine the psychological complexity of the book, the irrationality of his thoughts and actions never feels as fleshed out as it should; he’s not evil, but he doesn’t exactly invite sympathy or understanding, either, and as a consequence he feels too hazy for a figure who plays such a central role in the narrative.

But Joosten’s conclusion is both riveting and satisfying, and her delicate handling of knotty subject matter is testament to her skill as a writer. As captivity narratives go, Berlin Syndrome isn’t as chilling as John Fowles’s brilliant The Collector, but I think it’s a more nuanced and absorbing study than Emma Donoghue’s Room, which was short-listed for last year’s Booker Prize. I’ll be interested to see what Joosten comes up with next.

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