Review: A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

When I found a copy of A Guide to Berlin at the beautiful Matilda Bookshop in the Adelaide Hills I was instantly intrigued. A story of six visitors to Berlin from various parts of the globe who meet in empty apartments to share their stories and to discuss their mutual appreciation for author Vladimir Nabokov, in particular his short story, A Guide to Berlin? It looked interesting. So did the hint on the back cover that there would be an act of violence and the relationship between the group would not end well. Add the fact that it was written by Gail Jones, a much respected Australian author of Literary fiction and I could not resist buying this one and reading the first few chapters in a nearby cafe. 

I was immediately taken by the beautiful prose, which as I was soon to discover was the novel's greatest strength, along with its depictions of Berlin through the eyes of Cass, an Australian who had grown up in Broome, and now found herself in Berlin in mid-winter. The two places could not be any more different and it was interesting to read Cass' reactions to her new surroundings. The stories that her companions share are utterly heart wrenching. That said, while the author writes beautifully, I did not get a great feel for the characters. Even the descriptions of the city, while relevant to Cass, don't always do the reader justice. I felt the perspective was a bit too limiting. As for the characters, I spent the whole book feeling as though I was watching them from afar, especially after the twist. It is difficult to understand how they could all be so complacent. Cass and Marco's relationship felt dull, as though they were two people going through the motions for the hell of it, rather than them having any kind of sexual or romantic attraction to one another. Ultimately, A Guide to Berlin starts strong, but falls flat. Beautiful prose cannot atone for a story and characterisation that lacks depth. That said, I've read and enjoyed a number of other novels by this author and would not hesitate to pick another of her novels up again.

Not recommended. 


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