The morning I started reading this month’s book of the month, a woman sitting opposite me on the London Overground leaned across. ‘Excuse me,’ she said. ‘Could you tell me about that book? You see, I’m moving there tomorrow.’
I glanced at the cover of Gail Jones’s A Guide to Berlin and smiled. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘It’s not a guide to the city. It’s a novel by an Australian writer… But good luck with the move. From what I hear, it’s an amazing place.’
The fact that a coincidental encounter attended my reading of this Stella prize-longlisted book turned out to be quite fitting because chance connections play an uncanny role in the story. Told through the eyes of Cass, a young Australian woman who rents a bedsit in Berlin to try to write and falls in with a group of foreign nationals living in the city, the novel explores the surprising, strange and sometimes terrible things that link us.
The new friends – Yukio and Mitsuko from Tokyo, Gino and Marco from Rome, and Victor from New York – are brought together by a shared love of the work of Nabokov (the book’s title is also the name of one of his short stories). They use this common interest as a launchpad for a series of ‘speech-memory disclosures’, meeting regularly and taking turns to tell the others the story of how they came to be who they are. Yet, as the stories unfold, more comes out than the group could have imagined, leading to a violent climax that leaves each of the six central characters changed.
In many ways, it’s just as well that my fellow passenger didn’t have time to read this novel before she moved to Berlin: Cass’s first impressions of the city, which strikes her as ‘stiff and dead’, are far from inviting. Yet, as the pages turn, a rich, layered collage builds up, with Jones sending us whizzing along the lines of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, stumbling over Stolpersteinen, walking in Nabokov’s footsteps and blundering into the makeshift shanty town established by African asylum seekers at Oranienplatz.
This mining of ‘remnant presences and the traces of suffering lives’ takes place against some of the most deliciously evocative descriptions of winter and snow that I have had the pleasure of encountering. Not since I read the Belarusian classic King Stakh’s Wild Hunt, has cold seemed to billow from the page in the way it does in the ‘scintillating night and […] smothered calm’ of Jones’s Berlin.
Yet, while the German capital may be a focus in the novel, the speech-memory disclosures remind us that each of us carries something of the places we come from. As a result, we learn about the hikikomoris and Lolita girls of Yukio and Mitsuko’s Japan, and the fallout of a bomb blast in Rome, as well as Cass’s ambivalent feelings about her homeland and the way outsiders regard it – her shame at the ‘government policy of hard hearts’ in relation to immigration, for example, and the idea that ‘in Europe, Australia is regarded as a fiction of beautiful lies’. In this way, the narrative plays with the mirage-like quality of national identity, a concept that seems to dissolve the closer you get to it.
Jones’s eye for the minutiae and hidden workings of human interactions is one of her major strengths. Time and again, the narrative mines the insecurities and foibles of its characters, bringing arresting truths to the surface. To read this book is to recognise repeatedly what it is to be a person. From the snags and spools in conversation, to the way we fictionalise our lives and concerns, editing and embellishing our histories as we go.
For the most part, these insights are delivered in stunningly precise prose. In the early chapters, a few metaphors misfire and adverbs clog odd sentences, making some passages feel awkward and self-conscious. By 20 or 30 pages in, however, these hiccups are mostly gone. It is as though Jones writes her way into the book, just as her heroine explores her way into Berlin.
Some readers, Reading Matters book blogger Kim Forrester among them, have criticised the dramatic events of the closing chapters as rushed and inauthentic, particularly after the slow drift of a narrative that, until that point, largely consists of people talking in a series of rooms. Credulity certainly creaks here and this abrupt turn of events will no doubt break the spell for some.
For me, however, the book has so much to offer that I was more than prepared to brush this aside. As a writer, I found this an extraordinarily nourishing read – a novel that inspires me to push my craft further, to write better, to imagine my way more fully into things. I was right to tell my fellow passenger that it is not a guide to the German capital. Instead, as the best books do, A Guide to Berlin reveals something about all of life and the whole world.
A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones (Vintage, 2015)