After leaving her previous job in less that ideal circumstances, and thanks to the support of her endlessly beneficent parents, Daphne decides – more or less on a whim – to move to Berlin from London and start learning German. Although she’s adept at the language, she’s unsettled right at the start of her new life when the flat she’s renting mysteriously has its window shattered. Between language lessons and lacklustre attempts at job-hunting, similar sinister mysteries mount up. Is someone after Daphne?
It would be ever so easy to take against our protagonist here – and lack of self-awareness not being one of her many faults, she’d be the first one to admit it. Enviably privileged, she’s able to spend her days wandering round the German capital city with only vague notions towards finding gainful employment. She’s a compulsive liar, and endlessly judgemental, despite a whole raft of her own eccentricities and insecurities. Tilt things just a little and she could easily be the creation of a tabloid columnist desperate to paint younger millennials/Generation Z as immoral, lazy and entitled.
Happily though, she’s the creation of debut novelist Bea Setton, who writes Berlin in an intimate, confessional first person, pulling us into Daphne’s mind – cluttered, apprehensive, riddled with self-loathing – and making her feel tangible and honest. The fact our unlikely heroine is so open about these insecurities is what makes her, despite all her baggage and general prickliness, oddly endearing. Whilst some of her issues are more intense and esoteric than others, the general sweep of her psyche, and her battles with loneliness and generalized anxiety, are eminently relatable – especially for those also adrift in their twenties. The frankness of her inner dialogue, the warped yet still perceptive way she views her new world, means she’s a fascinating person to spend time with. You might not want to be her friend, but you’ll want to hear what she’s got to say.
And it’s thanks to the strength of that connection Setton builds between the reader and Daphne that the anticlimactic essence of the narrative here really doesn’t matter all that much. Although Setton appears to be setting up something of a thriller narrative early on, the more chapters that pass, the more it becomes clear that Berlin isn’t a thriller at all – it’s a character study. The tension doesn’t stem from the external discovery of who seems to be targeting Daphne, but internally, from whether or not she’s going to be able to get a handle on her many issues and come out the other side of this personal crisis in one piece. Because she’s so fragile, and because Setton’s prose is so viscerally intimate, that proves just as engaging a question as any hunt for a vengeful, window-shattering stranger.
If you come to Berlin expecting a conventional ‘whodunnit’ style mystery, you may leave disappointed, but the psychological territory the author explores with her protagonist is rich and rewarding enough that most readers will leave eager to hear more from Bea Setton.
Berlin is published by Doubleday on 7 July 2022