Joosten, Melanie. Berlin Syndrome

Scribe, $29.95

Clare is offered a strawberry by a handsome stranger as they cross a Berlin street. The next day, she sees him in a bookshop, reading the volume on Klimt she was about to buy.

A drink leads to Clare spending the night in Andi’s apartment. He convinces her to stay the next night. And the day after that, she realises she can’t leave, as he’s locked her in.

“Berlin Syndrome” relates Clare’s fall from independent, feisty photographer to bewildered victim. It’s a rumination on the reported “Stockholm Syndrome” (where a prisoner becomes sympathetic toward her captor), examining the psychological changes within a captive victim over time.

What could be a very slim tale is enhanced by discreet tangents. Andi has keen abandonment issues. Clare could be a metaphor for a city, her imprisonment mirroring the captivity of the citizens of East Berlin prior to Germany’s reunification. Andi was a teen when the Berlin Wall fell, but his mother had escaped to the west when he was five, leaving him and his father behind.

Berlin Syndrome shifts perspective from captive to captor, and the reader’s perspective inside Andi’s thoughts is clear. It’s a tricky move to execute without lumps in the narrative flow; Joosten’s transitions are smooth as cream.

It’s not just the fact that the reader is desperate for Clare’s escape that keeps pages turning. In language that’s hypnotic and sparse, Joosten’s remarkable first novel demands to be guzzled in one sitting.

 

Reviewed June 2011

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