Gillian Dooley reviews 'A Guide to Berlin' by Gail Jones

Gillian Dooley reviews 'A Guide to Berlin' by Gail Jones

A Guide to Berlin

by Gail Jones

Vintage, $32.99 pb, 272 pp, 9780857988157

I sit in a safe room with the winter sun on my back and read of violence and menace in an icy city. Gail Jones’s Berlin is so bleak and the novel’s dénouement so shattering that I need that brief benign warmth. This is not, I hasten to protest, a spoiler: the book begins by foreshadowing a scene of guilt, shock, and death, to which the novel’s action then gradually unfolds.

Jones’s oeuvre is steeped in intertextuality and imbued with the movement of literary currents and personal bonds across cultures. Her last novel, Five Bells (2011), was infused not only with Kenneth Slessor’s poem but with the shades of other writers. A Guide to Berlin is a variation on this, making the literary debt explicit, not only in the title.

Vladimir Nabokov is the guiding spirit of A Guide to Berlin, as would be immediately apparent to the initiated. He is there at every level, in the title which echoes that of his story, in the texture and pace of the prose, in the lugubrious edginess of the plot, and as the reason why the six characters meet. All are visiting Berlin: Victor, a middle-aged Jewish American academic; a young Japanese couple, Yukio and Mitsuko, both writers; two Italian men in their thirties, Gino and Marco; and the Australian Cass, a twenty-six-year-old would-be writer. They form a group, brought together by Marco, ‘inspired and compelled by a shared interest in the work of Vladimir Nabokov’. At the first of the meetings that she attends they begin ‘a “speak-memory” game, in which each would introduce themselves with a densely remembered story or detail’.

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Gillian Dooley

Gillian Dooley

Gillian Dooley is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in English at Flinders University, and a Visiting Fellow in the Music Department at Southampton University. Her publications include an edited book of interviews with Iris Murdoch (2003), V.S. Naipaul, Man and Writer (2006), J.M. Coetzee and the Power of Narrative (2010), and journal articles on a range of literary topics including music in the life and work of Jane Austen. In 2005 she co-edited Matthew Flinders’ Private Journal and in 2014 she published an edition of the correspondence between Iris Murdoch and the Australian radical philosopher Brian Medlin. She has been a regular reviewer for ABR since 2002. She is founding editor of the online journals Transnational Literature and Writers in Conversation.

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