A Guide to Berlin – Gail Jones
Random House Australia
Review by Suzanne Bozorth-Baines
A group of six international travellers, two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian, meet in empty apartments in Berlin to share stories and memories. Each is enthralled in some way to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, and each is finding their way in deep winter in a haunted city. A moment of devastating violence shatters the group, and changes the direction of everyone’s story.
Reviewer: Suzanne Bozorth-Baines
When I perused the list of sessions for the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival, I was happy to see Gail Jones’ name amongst the presenters. Already a fan, I went along to her session and wound up purchasing her latest novel, A Guide to Berlin. And so her novel joined the ‘to read’ shelf; but I didn’t get around to reading it until 5 months after purchase. I know that reading a novel by Jones needs a certain kind of commitment and contemplation—not just a romp. I needed to be ready, in the right headspace to get into it; by the looks of the cover, it needed to be colder weather. Now, an additional 5 months down the track, I found myself doing a review; so guess what, I needed to go back and reread it.
All I remembered from the book was an overpowering sense of cold and snow, a death, and the connection of a small group of people dedicated to the writings of Vladimir Nabokov. Dense with Jones’ beautiful language and description, it is not surprising this book was short listed for the 2016 NSW Premier’s Awards and long listed for the 2016 Stella Prize as well as long listed for the Sisters in Crime 2016 Davitt Award. With the reread I was again reminded so vividly and truly of snow and the freezing cold, weather I grew up with in Colorado. I could relate so well to the black ice, the slippery walkways, the feathery delight of the falling and anonymous blanketing of snow. No wonder the snow left such a lasting impression.
Cass, Jones’ main character, seems frozen emotionally and creatively in this frosty environment but seems to ‘thaw’ as the tale progresses. The cast of characters come alive through their use of the process of ‘speak memories’ to tell their stories. After all their stories are told, they are thrust into a scary and surreal situation with the death of one of their members. Just when you’re wondering where this story might lead, the death acts as device to move the characters on to the next stage of their relationships. This really isn’t a murder mystery, it’s more a story of how a group of people connect and relate to each other and how they continue on when tragedy strikes their number.
If you’re looking for a classic whodunit, this doesn’t fit the bill—you know what happens and who did it. But if you’re ready for powerfully descriptive language, Berlin in winter, and a disassociated group of people coming together to share and experience a way of interacting, then A Guide to Berlin will greatly satisfy.