Bea Setton’s debut novel, Berlin, is definitely one for this year’s “hot girl summer” reading list. The novel follows unreliable narrator Daphne Ferber’s mis/adventures in the titular Berlin, fleeing from London and seeking a fresh start. However, her hope for a new beginning dwindles when unfortunate events start to occur one after another; she finds herself tangled up in inescapable loneliness, unhealthy behaviours, and alarming situations.
Setton vividly renders what it feels like to move to a new place on your own; Daphne falls for the promises of new social groups, tantalising love affairs, and wild parties that the new city gives to the younger adults. In actuality, she fails to make friends with her classmates in the German language course she is taking. The dates she has been to creates even more unpleasant circumstances: one ends up relentlessly stalking her, and another one results in an awkward friendship. Moreover, she constantly feels inadequate in terms of her looks, academic/professional achievements (despite her philosophy degree from Oxford), or even her tragedies (in one point, she even feels like her struggles are not sad enough). All the feelings and thoughts Daphne’s having are palpable to the reader.
However, this relatability is shattered by Daphne’s traits of compulsive lying and lack of personal accountability. Some might argue that Daphne’s character is supposed to be unreliable and unlikeable - Yes, but she has to be understandable. Setton’s explanation for Daphne’s behaviour was that she was an embodiment of a “Woolfian mirror”, a magic mirror that women serve as to magnify the figure of the men (p. 41). She used this idea as a tool to mock dating culture. Indeed, Daphne’s whole character itself actually feels like a mirror–reflective and flat. She reflects on her wrongdoings and is aware of her immense privilege, but does absolutely nothing about it. Thus, it becomes baffling why the reader has to empathise with her.
The immaculate atmosphere of Berlin will certainly pull the readers right into the novel, making it a fun read to have on a sultry summer day by a pool or under a tree. Nonetheless, it is debatable how many readers would be satisfied with the overall story. The plot twist was fairly predictable whilst still being unexplained. Moreover, the plot twist lost its gravity in the end because Daphne did not seem to glean any insight from this. Additionally, the last monologue-like paragraph demolished anything likeable about Daphne Ferber, at least for me. She could be seen as a representative of many people, but probably not many readers will like how her somewhat-illegal and harmful actions have gone completely unnoticed. Although the way Bea Setton visualised Berlin and German culture impeccably, the lack of character development in her novel might be a miss for some.
Berlin is published by Doubleday and is available for purchase here.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor