A Guide to Berlin

Gail Jones

A Guide to Berlin
Random House Australia
1 August 2016

A Guide to Berlin

Gail Jones

Shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and Longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize.

‘A Guide to Berlin’ is the name of a short story written by Vladimir Nabokov in 1925, when he was a young man of 26, living in Berlin. A group of six international travellers, two Italians, two Japanese, an American and an Australian, meet in empty apartments in Berlin to share stories and memories. Each is enthralled in some way to the work of Vladimir Nabokov, and each is finding their way in deep winter in a haunted city. A moment of devastating violence shatters the group, and changes the direction of everyone’s story.

Brave and brilliant, A Guide to Berlin traces the strength and fragility of our connections through biographies and secrets.


I’ve always felt that Gail Jones is yet to receive the recognition she deserves. This is her sixth novel and it is, I believe, a masterpiece. It is a beautifully constructed novel that builds slowly to its horrific and violent conclusion. The title comes from a short story by the Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. In Jones’ novel, a young Australian woman, Cass, arrives in Berlin in the middle of a cold winter. She’s not exactly sure what she’s there for or what she wants to do with her life. She has come to be fascinated by the life and work of Nabokov.

One day her wanderings take her to the apartment building that Nabokov lived with his wife Vera from 1932 to 1937. Outside she is approached by a handsome Italian, Marco, who quotes a line from Nabokov to which Cass responds in kind. Marco is delighted and takes Cass for a coffee where he asks her to join his group of fellow Nabokov devotees including his friend Gino; an American academic, Victor; and a Japanese couple, Yukio and Mitsuko. He instructs Cass, ‘Come tomorrow at 5pm.’

Over the course of six evenings, each member of the group, in homage to Nabokov’s autobiographical novel Speak, Memory, reveals something deeply personal, something deeply hidden. Separately, Cass explores relationships with each member of the group learning about them, about herself and about Nabokov. Marco has crazy theories about everything, says Gino; ‘Don’t trust him,’ he implores Cass, aware that she is attracted to Marco. In the background is the cold, ice-bound city, dangerous and with hidden secrets. The bonds that form as they tell their stories become stronger as they reveal themselves, but even those revelations conceal mysteries. Each ‘speak memory’ is complete in itself, and each is intensely interesting and compelling. This is a great novel with complex, fascinating layers upon layers; I can’t recommend it enough.

Mark Rubbo

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