Melbourne

Review: “Berlin Syndrome” by Melanie Joosten [2011]

Disclaimer: This is a review copy kindly sent to me by Scribe.

It is Berlin, 2006 and Claire, a woman from Melbourne, is mid-way drifting through a backpacking slash working holiday through the old Soviet countries. Claire is an architectural photographer and is working on a coffee table book of Soviet buildings. While visiting Checkpoint Charlie, Claire meets a local man, Andi, who randomly offers her strawberries. Delighted by this chance encounter, Claire sits down to chat with Andi who lets on the meeting may not have been random:

‘Sometimes I like to just sit there and complicate the world.’

He had watched for her reaction.

Clare had laughed, throwing her head back in a pantomime of enjoyment. Would it annoy him after some time? Would he stop trying to make her laugh?

Complicate? You mean contemplate…but it’s very funny.’

He had laughed with her. It was a good choice. He had almost gone with compensate. Consummate. Concentrate. Consecrate. Complicate had definitely been the best choice. – p. 15

Claire and Andi both connect and are attracted to each other but neither work up the courage to say anything. They go their separate ways but through another chance encounter at a bookstore a few days later, Claire goes home with Andi. The two begin a seemingly normal relationship and both Claire and Andi connect through their mutual disconnection in the world. Claire has left and given up keeping in touch with her friends and family, only sending her mother a few emails here and there to let her know that Claire is alright. Constantly travelling, Claire is searching for something that she cannot define and constantly looking into the distance.

‘But maybe we are always looking forward to something else,’ he  said … ‘I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. Not if there are things to look forward to.’

‘It is impossible to be present in the present.’ [Claire] – p. 51

Andi only has his father with whom he shares a stilted relationship. Both are alone in the world. The romance develops but it soon disintegrates into something entirely sinister beginning with a locked front door:

She felt slighted, wanted to kick something. She gave the door a half-hearted nudge with the toe of her shoe. It was one thing not to be able to get in. But not get out? How could he have forgotten she was here? How could he have locked her in? She kicked the door again, harder, and a scuff mark appeared like a rebuke. – p. 57

Andi, utterly but quite rationally in love with Claire but completely deluded, wants to ensure that she won’t be able to leave him and so virtually keeps Claire locked in his apartment. He brings her gifts and does not harm her, hoping that Claire will soon warm to the idea and return his love once again. Like most lovers, Andi wants to save Claire:

‘Running away? What have I [Claire] ever run away from? You don’t know me at all!’

‘I’m just trying to help. I’m giving you a place just to be yourself. In the moment, not looking to the future. That’s what you said you wanted, isn’t it?’ He is doing this for her. Why can she not see that? – p. 97

Andi lives in an isolated apartment block and have taken away all forms of communication from Claire. Trapped, Claire eventually reforms a rather twisted relationship with Andi who wants nothing but Claire.

Berlin Syndrome is a really thrilling read and is the debut novel from a Melbourne writer. The prose is sparse but polished and, I found, very elegant. The small, claustrophobic cast was well drawn and in a rather bizarre sense, both Claire and Andi really complemented one another. They were really two lost souls and you felt for their loneliness and disconnectedness. I’m wondering if the title is a play on Stockholm Syndrome? I don’t want to put anybody off but if you liked Room by Emma Donoghue or Before I Go to Sleep by S. J. Watson, then you’ll probably like this too because it’s in a similar vein.

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A Gala Night of Storytelling

Last night, I attended the opening session of the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, of which I blogged about recently (ok, it was more like I boasted 🙂 ). The inaugural event was a good old storytelling session by a lovely mix of leading Australian writers, a comedian and a musician. I knew the event was sold out but I had absolutely no idea how many people or popular it was going to be. My friend and I were late but it didn’t matter since the line sneaked right around the corner and around 500 metres up the next block. Ironically, I ended up standing outside the antiquarian book store. I wished I had taken a photo of the line because it was pretty exciting to know how many book geeks were out there last night.

The theatre was a lovely room with bygone decor and architecture. Here are some photos I sneaked while waiting for the show to begin:

The mixture of stories told were marvelous and they were all equally captivating. Some were sad and wistful, as were the stories told by David Malouf about his mother and the simplicity and beauty of family love by Tara June Winch, who read out her piece in a most lovely sing-song and gentle voice.

There were funny stories by Cate Kennedy, who regaled the audience with funny anecdotes of her eccentric but lovable grandfather, Judith Lucy, whose family was not big on storytelling but, in turn, provided her with stories to tell, and John Safran, who told us that it was his father who first urged him to test the boundaries and to always …err…poke at things.

There were also stories with morals. John Marsden spoke about a recent incident which caused him to muse over consequences where the youth of today are not part of a community and are never, informally or formally, initiated into society as an ‘adult’. Christos Tsiolkas spoke about the alienation of migration, where grandchildren and grandparents become worlds apart and, in many instances, are no longer even able to speak the same language.

These were just some of the stories told and I was enraptured from the beginning. The finale song by Paul Kelly was both uplifting and sad, teaching, or warning, us about the importance of distinguishing between chance, fate and destiny.

It was a great night and a great welcome and introduction to the Wheeler Centre and christening of Melbourne as a City of Literature. Hurrah! For those who are interested in seeing the event, the session was filmed and it should be available to watch online soon.

It was also great to meet Elena, from With Extra Pulp, after some slight confusion, phone troubles (on my part) and chasing each other around the city on a Saturday night. We enjoyed a Booty Call and weird tasting vodka while talking about books and writing. 🙂

The Wheeler Centre

Already, I think this is going to be one of my most favourite places in the city and it hasn’t even opened yet. The Wheeler Centre (named after Tony and Maureen Wheeler of Lonely Planet) has been under development for the last two years ever since Melbourne was announced as the second City of Literature by UNESCO in 2008 (the first being Edinburgh).

The crux of the centre is to provide a melting pot of ‘books, writing and ideas’ and it is situated beside the State Library of Victoria (also a most lovely place). Everything literary is going to housed under the same roof such as the various writing organisations. What I am most excited about are the ongoing events that are to run from the centre. I think the events are innovative, fun and most importantly of all, allows people from all walks of life and background to enjoy, and be introduced to, quality literature and discover new writers as the majority of events are free.

The three month programme is out and I’ve already booked myself in for around six events, including the opening Story Telling Gala night and ‘In Conversation with Helen Garner’, and marked out many others that I want to go to. I’m most excited about the Lunchbox/Soapbox event with Kate Holden, who is one of my most favourite writers and columnists. The beauty of many of these events is that you can simply wander in and find yourself a place where your mind can be stimulated. With all the writing centres situated under one roof, debuting and established writers, artists, thinkers now have a centralised headquarter. Bibliophiles can also now indulge in literary delights throughout the year rather than the few major events.

(And no, I don’t work for the centre.)

Melbourne – UNESCO’s City of Literature

As a proud Melburnian and bibliophile I just thought I should point out that the city has become only the second (after Edinburgh) to be named a City of Literature. I think it’s an incredible declaration and I was extremely pleased when it was announced back in August coinciding with the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. Books are never far away and they are never difficult to find in this city. It is not only the massive chain stores, where there are very few here, but also the smatterings of second-hand bookstores, independent bookstores, hole-in-the-wall stores, and book cafes. Libraries also feature strongly around the city too and where ever I have lived, I always managed to have a library very close by. I’m very lucky at the moment to be able to count on having four libraries close by, However, it’s not just reading. Writing is a ferocious past time among us too.

Although I’m not quite sure what this means for the city, and what will change, this is one city appointment that I actually care about and which is extremely inspiring. One thing I do hope, however, is that we don’t become all selective, fussy and ‘high class’ about books and what constitutes as literature (which is still debatable anyway). The most important thing about books is that people are able to enjoy a story and to escape into another world.

A photo (not a very good one unfortunately) of the State Library of Victoria at night.

State Library of Victoria

State Library of Victoria