If all Scotland’s contemporary writers, Louise Welsh probably straddles that commercial-literary divide the best. Commercial writers may complain about a lack of literary recognition, whilst literary writers can only dream of five-figure sales, but Welsh, from her 2002 debut novel, The Cutting Room, which reached six figures, to her present one, The Girl on the Stairs, has consistently sold well.
She is also a ‘Britain’s Best First Novelist’, and a winner of the Saltire First Book award and the Crime Writers’ Association Creasey Dagger. Like a Scottish Sarah Waters, she has focused both on homosexual and lesbian relationships as well as immersing herself in the distant past (her 2004 novel about Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine Must Die). Add in the crime edge, and she’s a marketing man’s dream of what a successful early 21st century writer should look like.
But, this being the early twenty-first century, consistency isn’t enough. Welsh was with Edinburgh-based publishers Canon-gate throughout her first four books, The Cutting Room, Tamburlaine Must Die, The Bullet Trick and Naming the Bones. Now she has moved to John Murray in London, part of the giant Hodder group, and they’re not pulling any punches: ‘Her writing has always been great,’ says the publicity. ‘But now her commercial success will be great too. New Publisher – New Strategy – New Packaging – New Marketing – New Publicity.’ John Murray may well be looking at Welsh and seeing several zeroes on the end of those sales figures, more in the manner of crime writers like Ian Rankin and Val McDermid. But can she have the same branding effect? Does she have true mass market potential?
In a way, I hope not. There’s always a fear that huge sales (without a TV series or major literary award to boost them) may reflect blandness, a lack of difficulty, a lack of a challenge. Welsh’s prose style may favour realism but that doesn’t mean she eschews romance; plot-led, rather than character-led, her books nevertheless play on what Janice Galloway once called a ‘bribe to the reader’. And Welsh herself knows the demands of the market as well as of literary credibility. At the end of Naming the Bones, lecturer Murray Watson muses on the fate of the work of forgotten minor poet Archie Lunan, which also includes a sci-fi novel. ‘Christie had dismissed the science-fiction novel Archie had been writing as worthless, but the poet’s apocalyptic vision might yet turn out to be a classic of the genre, with the potential to attract more readers than the poems ever would.’
It’s rather touching then, that Welsh chooses to quote from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw at the beginning of her new novel. James was literary writer who sought commercial success desperately, who yearned to be a bestseller. With The Turn of the Screw, his 1898 novella about a young governess who becomes increasingly convinced that the ghosts of two servants are haunting, and corrupting, her two young charges, he almost achieved the kind of popularity he sought. Tellingly, it appeared first in serial form, the form so beloved by Dickens and which earned him so many devoted followers. Perhaps John Murray should have taken a chance and published The Girl on the Stairs similarly? Or would that be an innovation too far in this currently rather nervous publishing climate?
Welsh’s own ‘ghost’ story delights as much in ambiguity and the power of suggestion as James’s did. Her heroine, Jane, is pregnant – we don’t know by whom, as that information is withheld. Suffice to say, she has just moved to Berlin from Glasgow, to live with her partner, Petra. The apartment is rather cold and white, modern and characterless, and backing on to a cemetery and churchyard, as well as another apartment block, now disused and falling into disrepair. On her first night in this soulless place, Jane hears disturbing noises coming from their neighbours’ flat through the wall. It sounds like a child is crying, then a voice suddenly screams, ‘whore’. The next morning, she sees a young girl in a red coat cross the courtyard in the direction of the abandoned building. ‘The girl swore and turned, raising her hand as if warding off a blow.’
Welsh knows well enough how necessary it is psychologically to load the simplest of sentences, the most innocent of gestures. And in this way she establishes the subjectivity of her protagonist: we see what Jane sees, and Jane, affected by what she has heard the night before, immediately sees a victim of abuse. When the girl faces Jane, ‘her hood conspired with the buildings shadow to hide her features’, accentuating her mysteriousness, until finally Jane is confronted with ‘spiked eyelashes, rouged cheeks and red lips, and beneath the make-up, the soft unformed features of a child.’
Girls on the cusp of womanhood have long been seen as frightening and mysterious, a mix of both threatening and vulnerable, and writers from Stephen King in Carrie to Angela Carter in The Company of Wolves, have long exploited that double-ness. Welsh adds to that sense of a girl changing into a woman, though, with the ingenious use of a pregnant central character. Jane is changing bodily, too: she is in the state of ‘becoming’, just as the girl in red is, but while she is moving into a state of grace, that of motherhood, the girl is moving into something much more worrying, into sexual activity. Jane’s sexual activity has been curtailed and legitimated, partly: she may be a lesbian (and her relationship with Petra has attracted abuse in the past, and does in the course of this book) but she is also a mother. In the eyes of society, motherhood always wins out.
But what is the truth about her neighbour’s situation? Jane meets Dr Alban Mann, the gynaecologist father of Anna, the young girl in red, when he holds a package for her to collect. Is he the one who shouted ‘whore’ at his daughter? Is he the author of the bruise on his daughter’s face? When career-driven Petra has to leave Jane alone for a week in the flat whilst she goes away on business, Jane’s imagination is left to run riot.
Or does it? The interplay between real life and the imagined one relies on Jane’s personal interaction with the outside world. And so, dinner with her ‘in-laws’, Tielo and his wife Ute, becomes heavy with implication about cheating; a conversation with the elderly Beckers on the ground floor reveals that Dr Mann’s wife, Greta, the mother of Anna, disappeared when her daughter was very young; the sight of Mann, conversing with prostitutes on the street, adds to his disreputable character. Adultery, missing women, prostitution: gradually Welsh builds up, not just a sense of Jane and her view of the world, but also that world itself. Berlin becomes a palimpsest, a city whose faceless buildings hide something deeper once you start to rub away at the surface.
Or are these revelations that Jane makes true ‘revelations’? Welsh is not implying that all pregnant women are crazy, full of phantom thoughts of untraceable banging in the night. But she does need an unreliable narrator to make her mystery work, and a credibly unreliable one at that. There is just enough outside suspicion about Dr Mann to make Jane’s belief that he has done something bad to his missing wife and may be about to do something bad to his disturbed young daughter, a credible one, too. And yet, like the governess in The Turn of the Screw, we are alarmed by her increasing hysteria, sympathetic, perhaps, to her girlfriend Petra’s impatience with Jane’s suspicions. Why isn’t she thinking more about the health of their child, she demands, furiously. But Jane thinks all the time about her unborn child; she is obsessed with her growing belly.
Henry James’s popular masterpiece wasn’t just an exercise in obsession, or in readerly gullibility. It was also a debate about the nature of evil, and its attendant partner, madness (until the early nineteenth century, epilepsy was thought to be a form of madness, and madness itself a form of Satanism). James’s brother, William, was a highly respected psychologist, and the two brothers were both, in their different ways, superb delineators of the human psyche. The question of culpability haunts The Turn of the Screw – does the governess fail to protect her charges, or does she in fact, rush them to their fates? And can we always recognise evil when we see it?
Jane thinks she recognises evil when she sees it, and she trusts it as material, not immaterial. Is she right to do so? ‘Jane sat up and cradled her belly, trying to imagine the weight of it transferred to her arms. She couldn’t believe in God, and had never really understood science. Sometimes, when it was still, the baby felt as abstract, and as unlikely, as the big bang or God and all his angels. Then it shifted, and she knew without a doubt it was there, and that for good or for bad, she would see its face soon.’ She believes evil is there in the cry of ‘whore’ of Dr Mann; she believes it is on the streets, when she interviews prostitutes about him; that it is there on the subway, when she tries to rescue Anna from a group of aggressive young men. It is no accident that she is living opposite a church, that she converses with its young priest, or that something bad should happen as a result. Jane never precisely articulates it, but she believes evil is all around her, and has been from the moment she arrived. She also believes she is the only one who can defeat it.
Just as James’s novella brought him before a new audience, so John Murray will be hoping that Welsh’s ghostly little tale will do the same for her. It is certainly atmospheric and perplexing enough to work successfully as a mystery, and profound enough about women to suggest something more than a tricky plot. There is little sign here that she is about to make greater artistic concessions to the market-place. Consistency has been her watchword for a reason: in the past, such consistency was highly valued and rewarded. Since she first appeared on the literary stage a decade ago, however, the publishing world has changed vastly, and one-off wonders are increasing. We can only hope that Welsh’s foothold is as sure it seems to be.
THE GIRL ON THE STAIRS
JOHN MURRAY, PP288, £16.99. ISBN: 978 1848 546608