Guest review: Portia Lindsay on Berlin Syndrome by Melanie Joosten
Scribe Publications, 9781921844140, July 2011, Australia
Melanie Joosten’s debut novel is a taut and intimate psychological thriller. Clare meets Andi while on a working holiday in Berlin and they immediately share a strong attraction. At Andi’s behest, Clare decides to delay travelling on to Dresden, but their intense connection quickly morphs into a more sinister bond.
Joosten’s novel is an unflinching examination of power dynamics in a relationship; of what happens when power is removed, distorted, or subverted. The narrative oscillates between Clare and Andi’s perspectives and this shift is executed to great effect. They both struggle with their loneliness, tenderness and darkness in very different ways. Andi’s loneliness is revealed through his visits to his father’s house; his powerlessness revealed through memories of his mother. The impact these experiences have had upon him are played out through his relationship with Clare.
Their interactions provoke a sense of pathos and increasing trepidation. Andi’s utter confusion about how to connect with Clare is pitiable at times, while Clare’s distress becomes disturbingly palpable. As the narrative unfolds, motivations become clearer, and Andi’s inability to leave the past behind becomes increasingly apparent.
Tension builds as the narrative sinks more and more deeply into the minds and motivations of increasingly desperate characters. This insight is reminiscent of MJ Hyland’s treatment of the protagonist in This Is How. Both authors masterfully drew me into the mind of someone who is confused, disturbed, and capable of acts that even they do not wholly understand. They absorbed me in a way that elicited empathy and broke down barriers between myself and a protagonist who, on the face of it, is unsympathetic and at times monstrous. Joosten and Hyland share similarities in their claustrophobic depiction of an unhappy and discontented inner life and their thematic studies of captivity.
When asked about the setting of Berlin Syndrome in a recent Bookseller + Publisher interview, Joosten revealed that she chose to place the story in Berlin mostly for ‘the delicious metaphor’. The emotional damage inflicted upon an entire city held captive is indeed reflected on a personal level through Andi’s relationships. The psychological repercussions of containment, loneliness, and abandonment are finely executed through the intensity of one relationship.
From Andi’s apartment Clare can see the Berlin television tower, which was originally built in the 1960s by the German Democratic Republic as a symbol of the strength of Berlin. The blinking light of the tower becomes a constant companion. As Clare slowly unravels, oscillating between maintaining her physical and mental strength and succumbing to Andi’s desires, the television tower maintains a vigil from a safe distance. This distance is something that the reader does not have the luxury of, being drawn into the increasing madness and horrible claustrophobia of Andi’s apartment.
Berlin Syndrome drew me deeply into the perilous relationship between two people, and towards an utterly compelling climax. What takes place between Clare and Andi is not easily shaken off, after the last page, making this novel a stunning work by a remarkably assured young writer.