Berlin by Bea Setton: The art of self-sabotage

Cover image of Berlin by Bea Setton Obviously, I couldn’t resist Bea Setton’s Berlin despite reading both Frieidrichstrasse 19 and Marzhan, Mon Amour in quick succession earlier in the year, also set in one of my favourite European cities. Setton’s debut is very different from the others which tell the story of two neighbourhoods through the people who live in them. This one’s about a young woman who’s fled London leaving a trail of emotional fallout behind her, planning a fresh start in this city that seem to promise so much.

I was ruining my life a little every day, and although I see now that these things were redeemable, I’ve always found starting on a clean page more inviting than amending an imperfect first attempt.

Daphne lands in Berlin with nowhere to live and only the most tenuous of contacts. After a couple of false starts, she rents a flat and enrols herself on a German course. Daphne left London in a hurry after a drunken confession of love and a row with her flatmate, hastily resigning from her barista job. As the months wear on, the friendships she longs for fail to materialise as does the boyfriend she’d hoped would finally replace her beloved Sebastián who, strangely enough, turns up in Berlin, determinedly avoiding her. Daphne seems never far from a drama: she’s stalked by a man she meets at a party despite, apparently, giving him no encouragement; a brick is thrown through her apartment window forcing her to move out; she collapses in the local corner shop and is taken to hospital. When she moves to a new apartment and meets Milosh, it seems that a corner may have been turned but good things never seem to last for Daphne.

My whole life as a kind of montage for a rescue scene. I wanted someone to save me from my dysfunctional self.

Daphne tells her story in her own slightly snarky, superior, increasingly paranoid voice. There’s some sly humour to enjoy and it’s clear before too long that Daphne’s a deeply unreliable narrator who reminds us many times that she’s an habitual liar. She helps herself to other people’s belongings, avoids eating whenever she can, runs obsessively every day and checks to see what Sebastián’s been up to on social media. It’s all neatly done, the narrative becoming increasingly dark as small details gradually emerge to reveal the extent of Daphne’s problems. A compelling debut, smartly delivered and enjoyable enough for me to look out for Setton’s next novel.

Doubleday UK: London 9780857527974 256 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

13 thoughts on “Berlin by Bea Setton: The art of self-sabotage”

  1. Are they all escaping to Berlin hoping to reinvent themselves? Am I the only one planning to retire there (well, retire from the day job, and work hard on writing and translation and publishing)? Curses, why do I keep finding new books about Berlin that I want to read…

  2. I’ve sure known some Daphnes–at least based on that quote. Very thoughtful review. I already have this one on my TBR. Berlin is one of those cities I’ve long imagined escaping too, but never will.

      1. It and Amsterdam are the two I most often fanaticize about escaping too–mostly because they are supposedly more affordable than London. And having to ride a bike and walk would be better for me than 2 1/2 hours in the car daily! There’s at least an allusion of a more community-like atmosphere, not that I’m big on “group” stuff.

        1. Amsterdam is also a favourite with me although much more touristy than when I first visited a zillion years ago. Many commiserations on that commute. No fun at all.

  3. Although I have never been, Berlin very much appeals to me as a setting. I do enjoy an unreliable narrator too when done well, as this one seems to be.

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