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by Chloe Aridjis
Reviewed by F. T. Huffkin

November 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the bleak concrete belt whose legacy is a 'perpetual construction site'. Chloe Aridjis's Book of Clouds could be set only in Berlin. At its best, it's an extended psychogeographical meditation on the tension between boundaries of all kinds and the spaces both within and outside them. Over its brief span, Book of Clouds explores 'the phenomenology of space', the accommodation of the past by the present, and the uneasy relationship between nature and the built environment.

Several years before the book's main action, the noisy, numerous Mexican family to which the narrator Tatiana belongs are spending their inheritance on a European tour. They join a candlelit demonstration against the Wall, a 'dizzying' chain of connection across Berlin; in the overstuffed subway carriage after the demonstration, she spies (or thinks she does) Hitler disguised as an old lady. Yet despite this prelude, teeming with crowds, the book's atmosphere is primarily one of chilling isolation. Tatiana kicks against the claustrophobia of the opening and of her pre-Berlin life. She drifts through the city wrapped in loneliness, talking only to her reclusive employer Dr Weiss and the few subjects he requires her to interview, including Jonas Krantz, a meteorologist with a special interest in clouds. Having left behind her crowded family house, she is dogged by the intrusion of sound: strange noises from the empty flat above her, the twice-daily entrances and exits of her neighbours.

As mentioned earlier, a central theme of Book of Clouds is the opposition between nature and the built environment. From the storm that opens the main body of the book to the anarchic fog that brings it to its denouement, the forces of nature work to unlock doors and break down barriers. Aridjis also considers buildings as a repository of memory. She is fascinated with the hidden histories of buildings 'beautiful and unbeautiful' and with their erasure; houses and streets once dear to Weiss and his subjects are 'reduced to grey cement angles devoid of meaning' through constant redevelopment. Against these fond memories are set more familiar tales of torture and imprisonment in the 'Unterwelt' of Berlin.

In the anxious solitude of its protagonist and the veiled objectives of the characters she encounters, Book of Clouds is strongly reminiscent of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. (Indeed, the UK edition carries a glowing endorsement from Auster, calling her 'a young writer of immense talent'.) Aridjis's novel avoids Auster's metafictional games, but also misses his trilogy's brooding sense of menace and danger. There is mystery lowering over Tatiana's Berlin existence, and there are some notable pulse-raising moments, but for the most part the book steers clear of real suspense.

At times, the ethereal, dreamy unreality of Tatiana's passage through the city comes close to dissolving, returning to its constituent elements like Jonas's beloved clouds. Yet it feels churlish to ask of that it should provide a little more in the way of plot. It's so beautifully written and stylistically coherent: a thoughtful and sincere exploration of the ways in which cities encode and embody memory, to be savoured slowly and allowed to linger in the mind.