flapped paperback

The Undercurrents

Kirsty Bell

Published 9 March 2022
French paperback with flaps, 312 pages


A large pool of water had appeared overnight on our kitchen floor, so silent and unexpected it seemed to be a mirage. Tap water had been dribbling from a loose pipe beneath the sink and leaking noiselessly down through the two storeys below us. This scene, which we woke up to on the morning of our son’s ninth birthday, was the most dramatic but not the only incident of water damage. For several months before and after, a collection of plastic buckets and basins had become a semi-permanent, wandering feature, brought out to catch leaks in different parts of our home. One evening, a few months after the kitchen flood, our elder son noticed water dripping from the plasterwork rosette in the centre of the living room ceiling. Looking up, we saw an ominous spreading patch of brown as water leaking from upstairs traversed the terrain above our heads. Water always finds its way. My sons and I fetched the buckets and basins once more and laid out towels to soak it up. It was as if our new apartment was trying to tell us something.
    The apartment we had lived in before on the east side of the city, with an Edenic plasterwork of vines, fruits and flowers twisting around the columns of its façade, exerted no such influence. We were there for ten years – husband and wife, two sons, two cats – and throughout this time, regardless of our difficulties, that apartment was consistently neutral. It did not make its presence felt or stir up any overt feelings. It was simply a container, benevolent if anything, in enabling the maintenance of the status quo. Our new apartment, closer to the boys’ school in the west, was awkward from day one. Aggravating and interfering, it kept producing warning signals that could not be ignored. It intervened and forced itself into the role of the protagonist.


There are things you can see and others you can only feel, that you sense in a different way, as a whisper in your mind, or a weight in your bones. A nugget of doubt had crystallized and been disturbing the everyday flow of my thoughts for weeks already. Like a silty clot of debris, its vague contours had gained definition when we moved east to west across the axis of the city. Its shape was of unhappiness. And now here it was, clotting up my mind as I paced between the many rooms of our extravagantly proportioned new home. A cultivated emptiness in the mind can allow for rippling, drift and snag. It can draw out things that don’t want to be seen.
    That early morning encounter with a glassy pool of water on the kitchen floor was an unequivocal sign of rupture. Something had broken its banks and could no longer be contained. After years of emotional repression, subconsciously practised to maintain a functional family life, this spontaneous display, this uncalled-for outburst – this flood – was a symbol of almost hysterical clarity. It asked for an equally extreme response, which duly came in a sudden, brutal and final break. A severing of the family unit, whereby one part was broken off and the other three parts remained together. My husband went away for work and never came back to our home.


Water always finds its way. Winding through the crevices of this old building. Seeping into smoothly plastered and painted surfaces. Appearing suddenly in damp bruisesof mould in high-up corners. Inducing patches of plasterwork to blister off external walls. There was always a logical explanation, a cause to put it down to. Heavy rainfall on unsealed roof tiles; pipes drilled into or fixed up faultily; blocked drains in overflowing showers. The builders at work on the penthouse upstairs were clearly a slapdash bunch. Still, the relentlessness of these various cases began to feel oppressive. It was as if the surfaces of the apartment refused to be sealed; its infrastructure would not hold tight. Whenever it rained, I was anxious. As the months progressed, I felt an urge to map out the stains and marks that had been left on the ceilings, walls and floors. If I were to plot out their topography, could I devise a map to read and make sense of these minor domestic disasters?
    I had a persistent and uneasy feeling of intent behind these incidents. One that could not be seen straight on, but rather accessed sidelong through some form of divination. Like the hydromantic method of scrying, reading the ripples on a surface of water, lit by the light of the moon at best. As the boundaries of the apartment became porous, containment was no longer an option, and neither was silence. There would be no more holding things at bay. External events, emotional truths, historical incidents, all would find a way to make themselves known.


The Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin is a dazzling work of biography, memoir and cultural criticism told from a precise vantage point: a stately nineteenth-century house on Berlin’s Landwehr Canal, a site at the centre of great historical changes, but also smaller domestic ones.
    When her marriage breaks down, Kirsty Bell – a British-American writer, in her mid-forties, adrift – becomes fixated on the history of her building and of her adoptive city. Taking the view from her apartment window as her starting point, she turns to the lives of the house’s various inhabitants, to accounts penned by Walter Benjamin, Rosa Luxemburg and Gabriele Tergit, and to the female protagonists in the works of Theodor Fontane, Irmgard Keun and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. A new cultural topography of Berlin emerges, one which taps into energetic undercurrents to recover untold or forgotten stories beneath the city’s familiar narratives. Humane, thought-provoking and moving, The Undercurrents is a hybrid literary portrait of a place that makes the case for radical close readings: of ourselves, our cities and our histories.

‘Bell’s technique of showing her process results in a work that is deeply absorbing, even hypnotic….She has ably guided us on a poetic exploration of the layers and depths in this troubled, thrilling, world capital.’
— Casey Schwartz, New York Times

‘From the first moment I heard Kirsty Bell read from her writing, I have yearned for the book she was then working on. And now here it is, perfect and perfectly balanced, a clear-eyed and beautifully written account about place, about consciousness. I treasure The Undercurrents, and so will you.’
— Hilton Als, author of White Girls

‘It is easy to be carried along by these submerged currents, by the momentum of the prose, the motion through a resisting city. As in other classics of urban discovery, the personal becomes universal, and the past that demands to live in the present is revealed like a shining new reef. As we return, time and again, to the solitary figure at the window.’
— Iain Sinclair, author of London Orbital

‘With The Undercurrents, Kirsty Bell does for Berlin what Lucy Sante has done for New York and Rebecca Solnit for San Francisco; she tells the stories recorded in the city’s stone and water, and in the hearts of its inhabitants. Her profound and idiosyncratic chronicle of Berlin is an act of hydromancy, divining a history of love and loss from the water that flows beneath and between the city’s bricks.’
— Dan Fox, author of Limbo

‘I read this watery, engrossing book in the bath, following along as Kirsty Bell’s reflective curiosity leads her onward along the Landwehr canal, in and out of the archives, novels, memoirs, and stories of her building and her neighbourhood. Evocative and fascinating, The Undercurrents is a liquid psychogeography of Berlin that had me mulling over the psychic charge of place not only where Bell lives, but where I live too.’
— Lauren Elkin, author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London

‘Kirsty Bell has achieved a real work of art: She tells of Berlin's sunken past as a freshly emerged present – and she explains the energy of this city from the history of the people, the streets, and the hopes that have shaped it.’
— Florian Illies, author of 1913: The Year before the Storm

‘An enthralling book about how finding the truth of a city’s story means find the truth of your own.’

‘With sleuthing interest and novelistic flair, Kirsty Bell’s The Undercurrents has ruptured familiar terrain. The book’s subject, Berlin, is portrayed as a thing in motion, captured through a compound lens of culture, hard history and memoir.... an associative thesis on the dangers of repression, from gargantuan acts of genocide to the comparatively subtle shames of familial collapse.’

‘With her extraordinary new book, The Undercurrents, Kirsty Bell brilliantly shows us that not only is history all around us, but it is also something that we actively live alongside and are continuously becoming part of.’
Joshua Rees, Buzz Magazine

Kirsty Bell is a British-American writer and art critic living in Berlin. She has published widely in magazines and journals including Tate Etc. and Art in America, and was a contributing editor of frieze from 2011-2021. She was awarded a Warhol Foundation Grant for her book The Artist’s House, and her essays have appeared in over seventy exhibition catalogues for major international museums and institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and Tate, UK.