Book Review - Berlin

Twenty-six-year-old Daphne Ferber believes she is worldly wise and a good judge of character. Rather than face up to her shortcomings she runs from them. At the start of Bea Setton’s debut novel, she’s left London for a fresh start in Berlin.

As Daphne drip-feeds us information we learn she’s from a privileged background, failed to get accepted on a postgrad philosophy course (despite a degree from Oxford) and is living off her parents. We swiftly realise she is an unreliable narrator.

Daphne is a mass of contradictions. She has low self-esteem, finds it hard to make friends and looks down on many of her peers. She doesn’t go clubbing or take enough drugs to attract one set, nor does she feel comfortable with the honourably employed. Many of the people Daphne meets are already in relationships. She’s both grateful to and resentful of her parents for “the blanket of security which smothered my creative impulse and removed all necessity from my life”. Setton writes perceptively about the destabilising effects of vulnerability and loneliness in an unfamiliar environment

It soon becomes clear, Daphne has an eating disorder and lies to cover up her obsessive behaviour: “It is nearly impossible for an addict to tell the truth about their compulsions,” she observes in a moment of self-recognition. Inevitably she begins to dissemble in all areas of her life. Ashamed of her idleness, she tells people she is working as an au pair or engaged on a PhD programme.

Setton is good at conveying the anxiety of millennials confronted with endless possibilities. She writes perceptively about the destabilising effects of vulnerability and loneliness in an unfamiliar environment. There’s also plenty of humour in Daphne’s overthinking and her cynical approach to dating.

Things take a darker turn when she becomes convinced she is being stalked by a rejected boyfriend. Daphne’s not a particularly sympathetic character, but we begin to care about her when we realise just how off-kilter her life has become. Setton builds her growing paranoia and sense of dread to terrific effect in this unsettling, compelling read.

Originally published by The Observer