I was looking for something to read and wanted to take a break from my enormous to read pile, so when I found this book at my local public library, I was intrigued by the title. I’ve never been to Berlin, but it’s on my list and when I turned the book over and read the synopsis, I was hooked.
Melanie Joosten’s debut, Berlin Syndrome (Scribe, 2011), was recently republished because its film adaptation came out last year. There’s been so much debate in the US recently about why women stay in crappy and even dangerous situations. The story in this novel is central to that question and I feel Joosten does a fabulous job showing it.
Clare is an Australian photographer who is traveling around the former Eastern Bloc for a photo book she’s working on. When she goes to Berlin, she meets a young local named Andi (short for Andreas). He’s tall, attractive, and speaks English fluently because he’s a high school English teacher and once spent a year in London. Clare doesn’t know that Andi targets her and stages a chance meeting after he sees her reading outside, minding her own business.
But since Andi seems nice and is tall and attractive, Clare also flirts with him and doesn’t do anything to show she’s not interested. Andi follows her and finds her at a bookstore, where they meet again a couple days later. Clare goes home with Andi after they go out for drinks and he offers to cook her dinner at his place.
At this point, I can hear the criticism. She shouldn’t have gone home with him. What was she thinking, going home with a stranger? She asked for what she got.
This is where the dialogue is finally changing. This is where I stop and think he shouldn’t have kidnapped her and kept her against her will for almost a year. Why do we always blame the women when they aren’t the ones committing the crimes? I’ve gone home with people I’ve met on flights in other countries and wasn’t kept against my will. I know people who went home with strangers at the airport in the US when their relatives didn’t pick them up as scheduled after they’d flown halfway across the world for the first time. They weren’t kidnapped either.
Andi didn’t keep Clare locked up after the first night she stayed over. She leaves the next morning and heads toward to the train station to high-tail it out of Berlin. Andi rememberes Clare talking about leaving Berlin, so he guesses she’ll be at a certain station and runs there after he wakes up and Clare is gone. He finds her on the platform and in his deranged state truly believes she’s waiting for him to convince her to stay in Berlin, to go back to his place with him.
Why didn’t she leave? Because she thought he was romantic and a normal guy. He hadn’t shown he was an insecure man with mother issues who didn’t have a grasp on reality. Clare stays over again and they have a good time. She thinks they have a connection. And when she can’t leave the apartment the next day, she sure it’s because Andi absentmindedly forgot to leave a key. It’s true he did forget, but at that point he gets it into his mind that he can always forget a key and at some point she will learn to love him after she gets over the fact that he’s imprisoned her.
And that’s what happens. But imprisoning someone against her will doesn’t always work out for the perpetrator. Andi starts to feel suffocated by Clare’s presence. The stress of losing her is too great for him. He feels he would be better off not having this stress about her leaving (even though she can’t open the door) if only she weren’t at his apartment, yet he can’t get himself to let her go. Imprisoning her is destroying her, but it’s also eating away at him. I’m not empathetic toward Andi at all, but I liked how Joosten showed how it wasn’t all that he thought it would be when he decided to enslave Clare.
The story moves along at a steady pace and several twists pop up along the way. The book is short and a quick read. I like how Joosten shows not only why women stay, but also how after being entrapped for a while, they become conflicted about their captor. Clare has a chance to escape at some point and I can almost hear readers yelling at her to not be so stupid to pass up this chance, but it’s not that simple. When we feel so trapped, so hopeless, we go into survival mode and do whatever we can to normalize our situations. The title of the book refers to Stockholm Syndrome, where people who are captives start to empathize with their captors.
That’s one of the reasons women stay.