A guide to POTSDAM
Twenty Great Books set in APARTMENT BLOCKS
31st March 2023
Just recently I have read two novels that essentially take place in a block of flats, an apartment block. A building full of apartments makes for a wonderful setting because you have people who have to interact in close proximity, and the dynamics can be delightfully explored under the microscopic lens of an author. Add in a bit of horror, deception or crime and you have an excellent literary combination! Twenty great books set in apartment blocks.
Friedrichstrasse 19 by Emma Harding (Berlin)
Sigi lived upstairs from Sara at Friedrichstrasse 19 yet before they met, Sara had no idea that Berlin could be so thrillingly irreverent or that sex could be so intoxicatingly wonderful. But then came the war, and hunger, loneliness and barbed wire. It was just as a young girl, a protegee of The Academy of Magical Arts situated in Friedrichstrasse at the start of the century, had predicted.
Battered and divided, Berlin, like it’s people, endured. Hans yearns to be part of the boundary-breaking spirit of the age but he’s haunted by his mother’s part in the war and the absence of a father. Ilse, who escaped from the East, wants nothing more than the freedom she risked her life for.
In 1989 in a wild act of spontaneous joy, Heike leapt from the Wall into the arms of a stranger from the West. Thirty years later, she recognises that what she’d willed to be destiny was nothing more than naivety. Recently divorced, she moves into Friedrichstrasse, to begin a new life. But it’s impossible not to hear the echoes of the secrets and lies, visions and misunderstandings, lost loves and fatal mistakes, that have come before her.
Time-travelling between decades, through the interlocking lives of six people, Friedrichstrasse 19 relives the tumultuous experience of a city on the frontline of history.
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley (Paris)
A beautiful old apartment block, deep in the backstreets of Montmartre. A place of twisting staircases, locked rooms, watchful eyes from every window.
A place of murder.
One resident is missing.
And another holds the key…
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (Cairo)
This exceptional Egyptian novel – as mesmerising as it is controversial – caused an unprecedented stir when it was first published in Arabic.
Welcome to the Yacoubian Building, Cairo: once grand, now dilapidated, and full of stories and passion. Some live in squalor on its rooftop while others inhabit the faded glory of its apartments and offices. Within these walls religious fervour jostles with promiscuity; bribery with bliss; modern life with ancient culture. At ground level, Taha, the doorman’s son, harbours career aspirations and romantic dreams – but when these are dashed by unyielding corruption, hope turns to bitterness, with devastating consequences.
Alaa Al Aswany’s superb novel about Egypt’s many contradictions is at once an impassioned celebration and a ruthless dissection of a society dominated by dishonesty.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Paris)
Renee is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building, home to members of the great and the good. Over the years she has maintained her carefully constructed persona as someone reliable but totally uncultivated, in keeping, she feels, with society s expectations of what a concierge should be. But beneath this façade lies the real Renée: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Renée lives resigned to her lonely lot with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever.
The Glass Kingdom by Lawrence Osborne (Bangkok)
Sarah Talbot Jennings, a young American living in New York, has fled to Bangkok to disappear. Arriving with a suitcase containing $200,000, she rents an apartment at the Kingdom, a glittering high-end complex slowly sinking into its own twilight – and run by conveniently discreet staff.
In Bangkok’s shocking heat Sarah meets the beguiling Mali, a half-Thai tenant who’s strangely determined to bring the quiet American out of her shell. An invitation to Mali’s poker nights soon follows, where – fuelled by shots of yadong, gossip of shady dealings in the city and the hit of marijuana – Sarah is drawn into the orbit of the Kingdom’s glamorous ex-pat women.
But when an attempted military coup wracks the streets below and Sarah witnesses something unspeakable through one of the Kingdom’s windows, only to be followed by a series of strange disappearances, Sarah’s safe haven begins to feel like a trap.
From a master of atmosphere and suspense, The Glass Kingdom is a brilliantly unsettling story of cruelty and psychological unrest, and an enthralling glimpse into the shadowy crossroads of karma and human greed.
The Beresford by Will Carver (wherever you want it to be, it’s universal)
Just outside the city – any city, every city – is a grand, spacious but affordable apartment building called The Beresford.
There’s a routine at The Beresford.
For Mrs May, every day’s the same: a cup of cold, black coffee in the morning, pruning roses, checking on her tenants, wine, prayer and an afternoon nap. She never leaves the building.
Abe Schwartz also lives at The Beresford. His housemate, Sythe, no longer does. Because Abe just killed him.
In exactly sixty seconds, Blair Conroy will ring the doorbell to her new home and Abe will answer the door. They will become friends. Perhaps lovers.
And, when the time comes for one of them to die, as is always the case at The Beresford, there will be sixty seconds to move the body before the next unknowing soul arrives at the door.
Because nothing changes at The Beresford, until the doorbell rings…
Eerie, dark, superbly twisted and majestically plotted, The Beresford is the stunning standalone thriller from one of crime fiction’s most exciting names.
Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill (London)
Some doors are better left closed . . . In Barrington House, an upmarket block in London, there is an empty apartment. No one goes in, no one comes out. And it’s been that way for fifty years. Until the night watchman hears a disturbance after midnight and investigates. What he experiences is enough to change his life forever. A young American woman, Apryl, arrives at Barrington House. She’s been left an apartment by her mysterious Great Aunt Lillian who died in strange circumstances. Rumours claim Lillian was mad. But her diary suggests she was implicated in a horrific and inexplicable event decades ago. Determined to learn something of this eccentric woman, Apryl begins to unravel the hidden story of Barrington House. She discovers that a transforming, evil force still inhabits the building. And the doorway to Apartment 16 is a gateway to something altogether more terrifying . . .
The Apartment by K L Slater (London)
It’s an opportunity she can’t refuse. The woman before her tried…
Freya Miller needs a miracle. In the fallout of her husband’s betrayal, she’s about to lose her family home, and with it the security she craves for her five-year-old daughter, Skye. Adrift and alone, she’s on the verge of despair until a chance meeting with the charismatic Dr Marsden changes everything. He’s seeking a new tenant for a shockingly affordable flat in a fashionable area of London.
Adder House sounds too good to be true… But Freya really can’t afford to be cynical, and Dr Marsden is adamant she and Skye will be a perfect fit with the other residents.
But Adder House has secrets. Even behind a locked front door, Freya feels as if she’s being watched: objects moving, unfamiliar smells, the blinking light of a concealed camera… and it’s not long before she begins to suspect that her dream home is hiding a nightmarish reality. Was it really chance that led her here—or something unthinkably dark?
As the truth about Adder House starts to unravel, can Freya and Skye get out—or will they be locked in forever?
High-Rise by J G Ballard (London)
When a class war erupts inside a luxurious apartment block, modern elevators become violent battlegrounds and cocktail parties degenerate into marauding attacks on “enemy” floors. In this visionary tale, human society slips into violent reverse as once-peaceful residents, driven by primal urges, re-create a world ruled by the laws of the jungle.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad (Bangkok)
In the restless city of Bangkok, there is a house.
Over the last two centuries, it has played host to longings and losses past, present, and future, and has witnessed lives shaped by upheaval, memory and the lure of home.
A nineteenth-century missionary pines for the comforts of New England, even as he finds the vibrant foreign chaos of Siam increasingly difficult to resist. A jazz pianist is summoned in the 1970s to conjure music that will pacify resident spirits, even as he’s haunted by ghosts of his former life. A young woman in a time much like our own gives swimming lessons in the luxury condos that have eclipsed the old house, trying to outpace the long shadow of her political past. And in the submerged Bangkok of the future, a band of savvy teenagers guides tourists and former residents past waterlogged landmarks, selling them tissues to wipe their tears for places they themselves do not remember.
Time collapses as their stories collide and converge, linked by blood, memory, yearning, chance, and the forces voraciously making and remaking the amphibian, ever-morphing city itself.
Christodora by Tim Murphy (New York)
Moving from the Tompkins Square Riots and attempts by activists to galvanize a response to the AIDS epidemic, to the New York City of the future, Tim Murphy’s Christodora recounts the heartbreak wrought by AIDS, illustrates the allure and destructive power of hard drugs, and brings to life the ever-changing city itself.
The Christodora is home to Milly and Jared, a privileged young couple with artistic ambitions. Their neighbour, Hector, a Puerto Rican gay man who was once a celebrated AIDS activist but is now a lonely addict, becomes connected to Milly’s and Jared’s lives in ways none of them can anticipate. Meanwhile, the couple’s adopted son, Mateo, grows to appreciate the opportunities for both self-realization and oblivion that New York offers.
As the junkies and protestors of the 1980s give way to the hipsters of the 2000s and they, in turn, to the wealthy residents of the crowded, glass-towered city of the 2020s, enormous changes rock the personal lives of Milly and Jared and the constellation of people around them.
Vishnu, the odd-job man in a Bombay apartment block, lies dying on the staircase landing. Around him the lives of the apartment dwellers unfold – the warring housewives on the first floor, the lovesick teenagers on the second, and the widower, alone and quietly grieving at the top of the building. In a fevered state Vishnu looks back on his love affair with the seductive Padmini and comedy becomes tragedy as his life draws to a close.
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (LEBANON)
Aaliya Saleh lives alone in her Beirut apartment, surrounded by stockpiles of books. Godless, fatherless, childless, and divorced, Aaliya is her family’s ‘unnecessary appendage’. Every year, she translates a new favourite book into Arabic, then stows it away. The thirty-seven books that Aaliya has translated over her lifetime have never been read – by anyone.
This breathtaking portrait of a reclusive woman follows Aaliya’s digressive mind as it ricochets across visions of past and present Beirut. Colourful musings on literature, philosophy, and art are invaded by memories of the Lebanese Civil War and Aaliya’s own volatile past. As she tries to overcome her ageing body and spontaneous emotional upwellings, Aaliya is faced with an unthinkable disaster that threatens to shatter the little life she has left.
A love letter to literature and its power to define who we are, the prodigiously gifted Rabih Alameddine has given us a magnificent rendering of one woman’s life in the Middle East.
Fishbowl by Bradley Somer (USA)
Even a goldfish can dream of adventure…
From his enviable view from a balcony on the 27th floor of an apartment block, Ian the Goldfish has frequent – if fleeting – desires for a more exciting life. Until one day, a series of unfortunate events give him an opportunity to escape…
Our story begins, however, with the human inhabitants of Ian’s building. There is the handsome student, his girlfriend, and his mistress; an agoraphobic sex worker, the invisible caretaker; the pregnant woman on bed rest; and the home-schooled boy, Herman, who thinks he can travel through time.
And as Ian tumbles perilously downwards, he will witness all their lives, loves, triumphs and disasters…
A truly original, philosophically joyful and charming novel with the unlikeliest of heroes. This is Tales of the City as seen by a goldfish.
Fall by West Camel (Deptford)
Twins Aaron and Clive have been estranged for forty years. Aaron still lives in the empty, crumbling tower block on the riverside in Deptford where they grew up. Clive is a successful property developer, determined to turn the tower into luxury flats.
But Aaron is blocking the plan and their petty squabble becomes something much greater when two ghosts from the past – twins Annette and Christine – appear in the tower. At once, the desolate estate becomes a stage on which the events of one scorching summer are relived – a summer that shattered their lives, and changed everything forever…
Grim, evocative and exquisitely rendered, Fall is a story of friendship and family – of perception, fear and prejudice, the events that punctuate our journeys into adulthood, and the indelible scars they leave – a triumph of a novel that will affect you long after the final page has been turned.
Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec (Paris)
In this ingenious book Perec creates an entire microcosm in a Paris apartment block. Serge Valene wants to make an elaborate painting of the building he has made his home for the last sixty years. As he plans his picture, he contemplates the lives of all the people he has ever known there. Chapter by chapter, the narrative moves around the building revealing a marvellously diverse cast of characters in a series of every more unlikely tales, which range from an avenging murderer to an eccentric English millionaire who has devised the ultimate pastime…
Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan (Edinburgh)
Stories tucked away on every floor. No. 10 Luckenbooth Close is an archetypal Edinburgh tenement.
The devil’s daughter rows to the shores of Leith in a coffin. The year is 1910 and she has been sent to a tenement building in Edinburgh by her recently deceased father to bear a child for a wealthy man and his fiancée. The harrowing events that follow lead to a curse on the building and its residents – a curse that will last for the rest of the century.
Over nine decades, No. 10 Luckenbooth Close bears witness to emblems of a changing world outside its walls. An infamous madam, a spy, a famous Beat poet, a coal miner who fears daylight, a psychic: these are some of the residents whose lives are plagued by the building’s troubled history in disparate, sometimes chilling ways. The curse creeps up the nine floors and an enraged spirit world swells to the surface, desperate for the true horror of the building’s longest kept secret to be heard.
Luckenbooth is a bold, haunting and dazzlingly unique novel about the stories and secrets we leave behind, and the places that hold them long after we are gone.
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin (New York)
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, an ordinary young couple, settle into a New York City apartment, unaware that the elderly neighbors and their bizarre group of friends have taken a disturbing interest in them. But by the time Rosemary discovers the horrifying truth, it may be far too late!
Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga (Mumbai)
21st Century Mumbai is a city of new money and soaring real estate, and property kingpin Dharmen Shah has grand plans for its future. His offer to buy and tear down a weathered tower block, making way for luxury apartments, will make each of its residents rich – if all agree to sell. But not everyone wants to leave: many of the residents have lived there for a lifetime, many of them are no longer young. As tensions rise among the once civil neighbours, one by one those who oppose the offer give way to the majority, until only one man stands in Shah’s way: Masterji, a retired schoolteacher, once the most respected man in the building. Shah is a dangerous man to refuse, but as the demolition deadline looms, Masterji’s neighbours – friends who have become enemies, acquaintances turned co-conspirators – may stop at nothing to score their payday…
Minor Disturbances at Grand Life Apartments by Hema Sukumar
Grand Life Apartments is a middle-class apartment block surrounded by lush gardens in the coastal city of Chennai, India. It is the home of Kamala, a pious, soon-to-be retired dentist who spends her days counting down to the annual visits from her daughter who is studying in the UK. Her neighbour, Revathi, is a thirty-two-year-old engineer who is frequently reminded by her mother that she has reached her expiry date in the arranged marriage market. Jason, a British chef, has impulsively moved to India to escape his recent heartbreak in London.
The residents have their own complicated lives to navigate, but what they all have in common is their love of where they live, so when a developer threatens to demolish the apartments and build over the gardens, the community of Grand Life Apartments are brought even closer together to fight for their beautiful home…
Set in an upper-middle-class Tel Aviv apartment building, this best-selling and warmly acclaimed Israeli novel examines the interconnected lives of its residents, whose turmoils, secrets, unreliable confessions, and problematic decisions reveal a society in the midst of an identity crisis.
On the first floor, Arnon, a tormented retired officer who fought in the First Intifada, confesses to an army friend with a troubled military past how his obsession about his young daughter’s safety led him to lose control and put his marriage in peril. Above Arnon lives Hani, known as “the widow,” whose husband travels the world for his lucrative job while she stays at home with their two children, increasingly isolated and unstable. When her brother-in-law suddenly appears at their door begging her to hide him from loan sharks and the police, she agrees in spite of the risk to her family, if only to bring some emotional excitement into her life. On the top floor lives a former judge, Devora. Eager to start a new life in her retirement, Devora joins a social movement, desperately tries to reconnect with her estranged son, and falls in love with a man who isn’t what he seems.
A brilliant novelist, Eshkol Nevo vividly depicts how the grinding effects of social and political ills play out in the psyche of his flawed yet compelling characters, in often unexpected and explosive ways.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a 1943 semi-autobiographical novel written by Betty Smith. The story focuses on an impoverished but aspirational adolescent girl and her family living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, during the first two decades of the 20th century. The book was an immense success. It was also released in an Armed Services Edition, the size of a mass-market paperback, to fit in a uniform pocket. One Marine wrote to Smith, “I can’t explain the emotional reaction that took place in this dead heart of mine… A surge of confidence has swept through me, and I feel that maybe a fellow has a fighting chance in this world after all.” The main metaphor of the book is the hardy Tree of Heaven, whose persistent ability to grow and flourish even in the inner city mirrors the protagonist’s desire to better herself.
First in the series. The stories are centred around the residents of a house in Edinburgh, and offer slices of life through the different characters who live there and whose lives overlap. (A note in the introduction that this idea for this series began at a party given by Amy Tan and in a conversation with Armistad Maupin and originally these stories appeared in a newspaper …)
73 Dove Street by Julie Owen Moylan
‘Set in my end of 1950s London, the sense of time and place is beautifully evocative, the ghost of the war, and the sense of societal change about to come. It’s about pride and shame and love and loss and ultimately hope’ Laura Shepherd-Robinson
When Edie Budd arrives at a shabby West London boarding house in October 1958, carrying nothing except a broken suitcase and an envelope full of cash, it’s clear she’s hiding a terrible secret. And she’s not the only one; the other women of 73 Dove Street have secrets of their own . . .
Tommie, who lives on the second floor, waits on the eccentric Mrs Vee by day. After dark, she harbours an addiction to seedy Soho nightlife – and a man she can’t quit.
Phyllis, 73 Dove Street’s formidable landlady, has set fire to her husband’s belongings after discovering a heart-breaking betrayal – yet her fierce bravado hides a past she doesn’t want to talk about.
At first, the three women keep to themselves. But as Edie’s past catches up with her, Tommie becomes caught in her web of lies – forcing her to make a decision that will change everything . . .
No 3 in Tito’s Lost Children
Maršal Jovana Avramovska, the next leader of Yugoslavia, awakens from near-death to find Sarajevo under siege by Serb artillery. She and her team must keep her continued existence a secret while her adoptive brother, Hristijan, works on a desperate plan to topple Serbia’s power-mad president. To do so, they must prevent the Bosnian lines from collapsing – and stop the country’s other nationalities from turning against each other. Faced with more human suffering than they imagined possible, how much can Jovana and her team take before they start to crack?
After years of trying to regain his father’s approval, Predrag returns to the Serbian capital of Belgrade, triumphant. Credited with killing Jovana, he is promoted into the Serb military’s upper ranks, but remains convinced that his half-brother is still out to ruin him. Paranoid and angrier than ever, Predrag is forced to reexamine who his real allies are. Then he learns of a shocking Serb plot. The course of the entire war – and the failure or success of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia – could rest on his decision.
As the Yugoslav Wars enter their most brutal phase, Jovana and Predrag must wrestle with dark family vendettas and botched schemes of international diplomacy. They face their greatest challenges yet, in the final installment of Tito’s Lost Children, the alternative history trilogy that dares to ask the question: What if Maršal Tito, the strongman of Yugoslavia, had named a completely untested successor?
Home can be the most dangerous place…
In a small London bedsit, a radio is playing. A small dining table is set for three, and curled up on the sofa is a body…
Jenn is the one who discovers the woman, along with the bailiffs. All indications suggest that the tenant – Sarah Jones – was pretty, charismatic and full of life.
So how is it possible that her body has lain undiscovered for ten whole months?
Book 1 of 2: An Áróra Investigation
Icelandic sisters Áróra and Ísafold live in different countries and aren’t on speaking terms, but when their mother loses contact with Ísafold, Áróra reluctantly returns to Iceland to find her sister. But she soon realises that her sister isn’t avoiding her … she has disappeared, without trace.
As she confronts Ísafold’s abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend Björn, and begins to probe her sister’s reclusive neighbours – who have their own reasons for staying out of sight – Áróra is led into an ever-darker web of intrigue and manipulation.
Baffled by the conflicting details of her sister’s life, and blinded by the shiveringly bright midnight sun of the Icelandic summer, Áróra enlists the help of police officer Daníel, as she tries to track her sister’s movements, and begins to tail Björn – but she isn’t the only one watching…
Slick, tense, atmospheric and superbly plotted, Cold as Hell marks the start of a riveting, addictive new series from one of Iceland’s bestselling crime writers.
Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana
Banneker Terrace on 129th and Fred Doug ain’t pretty, but it’s home. Home to young and old, folk just trying to get by. Cookouts with beer and wings, summertime with souped-up cars bumpin music. People don’t come here for the bad; they came here to make a good life.
It is home to Swan down in 6B, reconnecting with his boy Boons, just out of prison. Home to Mimi in 14D, raising Swan’s child, doing hair on the side. Home to Quanneisha in 21J, longing to leave but it’s where she grew up. Home to Mr Murray in 2E, who has played chess outside on the sidewalk for years. Some of the residents of Banneker have got it together, some can’t make rent or pay bills, some are raising kids, some are hustling on the side, all are living.
Stories from the Tenants Downstairs expertly showcases the strengths, struggles and hopes of one Harlem community, who are grappling with the effects of gentrification alongside their own personal challenges. It captures the joy and pain of the human experience and heralds the arrival of a uniquely talented writer.
If you can think of further titles to add to the list, add your suggestions in the comments below. Happy reading!
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