- Book: Other People’s Clothes
- Location: Berlin, Schöneberg
- Author: Calla Henkel
I am always up for reading a novel set in Berlin, as I know the city well, and in the last couple of years due to Covid, I haven’t been able to travel. So I have had to rely on books with a strong setting. It is a city with a veneer of respectability but delve under the surface and there is a culture of drugs, sex and rock and roll that infiltrates every milieu and not just the alternative scene.
“Most people in Berlin don’t actually get dressed up, they simply have a plastic or leather version of the black outfits they wear all week”
It is 2009. Zoe has come to the city to study and she happens to find a rather fine apartment to share with Hailey – they recognise the windfall nature of the tenancy but something isn’t quite right with the author from whom they sublet. Beatrice Becks is off to Austria for a period, whilst her mother, with whom she lives, is off to Sylt for the duration. The young women have the run of the accommodation and soon discover that their apartment block is uninhabited. They are living in Bülowstrasse in Schöneberg, within striking distance of KaDeWe and Urban Nation.
Small things start to occur and they suspect that their landlady is somehow spying on them with a view to using their story as the basis for her next novel. She wants a story? They are ready to give her one and set up a night club in the apartment which becomes renowned.
The author clearly knows the city. She has the young women off queuing at Berghain – a club in the city, where standing in line for hours is part of the appeal, with a rugged tattooed bouncer allowing or barring entry, depending on his whim. You will have to buy the book to find out if they ever get in. But I digress.
Up until the point in the book when Zoe is hanging around at Christmas/ New Year – about a third of the way in – the author sets out a terrific storyline against a really colourful and credible backdrop. The story has verve, quiet humour and grit. Then comes the festive season followed by Hailey’s return from seeing family, the author revs things up several notches and it all gets a bit frantic. It just speeds a long with a lot themes (relationships, sexuality, eating disorders, murder, the story unfolding in Perugia, nightlife, alcoholic excess and so forth) that are rammed in and perhaps slightly drown the very competent and unique storyline It’s a very ‘Berlin’ story, it’s tantalisingly weird, it captures the feel and vibe of the city as things get darker; the overlay of elements detracts from the essence of the story.
I think this will appeal to people who know the foibles of the city, although it may appear exceptionally fanciful to those who are less familiar with the ways of the city.