In Bea Setton’s smart, sharply observed debut “Berlin,” we are transported to the world of twentysomething expats and the city of the title in the 2020s. After she is rejected from graduate school, twenty-six-year-old Daphne moves from London to Berlin. She tells no one in London that she has left, asserting that “Berlin is an easy place to start anew, as everyone seems to have just arrived.” When she wakes up to a broken window at the apartment she is subletting, she realizes that Berlin might not be such a fresh start after all. Similar strange occurrences follow her throughout subsequent sublets, and Daphne is forced to wonder if Berlin is trying to tell her something.
Despite the references to dating apps and technology, “Berlin” has an old-fashioned quality to it, and it could be read as a contemporary take on Victorian or Edwardian travel literature. Like Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch in “A Room With A View,” who witnesses a murder when she is unchaperoned, Daphne’s status as a single woman in a foreign city leaves her potentially vulnerable and exposed.
Self-indulgent and paranoid, Daphne is the kind of privileged, twentysomething expat who feels instantly recognizable. Other than attending German class, Daphne has little to occupy herself with, as her parents are still supporting her. Though Daphne professes to blame her parents for “the blanket of security which has smothered my creative impulse and removed all necessity from my life,” she also shows no interest in getting a job until much later in the novel, and she remains unemployed by the novel’s end. Daphne tells no one about her graduate-school rejections, and she often lies to the people around her, claiming that she is in Berlin on a fully funded PhD program or working as an au pair. Although she asserts herself as a painstakingly honest narrator, it gradually becomes apparent that Daphne is equally withholding from us as readers. Perhaps she even withholds from herself.
Like Daphne, Setton spent time living in Berlin after college. Though wry observations such as “Germans are very particular about asparagus” are undoubtedly influenced by Setton’s time living there, Setton is careful to show a gap between her and her character. Unlike Sally Rooney and her Marxist, Trinity-attending protagonists or autofiction writers who purposefully blur fiction and reality, Setton distinguishes Daphne as unfailingly individualistic. Though aspects of Daphne could be read as satire—her shame at her wealthy parentage is one example—we remain entrenched in Daphne’s mind, and during most of the novel, we find ourselves laughing with Daphne and not at her. Daphne comes across as so assertive and sure of herself that she almost seduces us into buying into her biases.
Through one such bias, Setton examines the gap between the young people who have come to Berlin to find themselves and the city’s more painful past. Months after arriving in Berlin, Daphne’s new boyfriend takes her to “many of the touristy things I’d avoided: we went to the Holocaust Memorial, a cluster of tall, concrete blocks that looked like broken, uneven teeth. We went to Checkpoint Charlie, and to the Nazi-era stadium.” That Daphne has reduced such important monuments as “touristy” is indicative of her privileged present, as is an early observation about learning to ignore “Stolpersteine,” the brass plates identifying buildings that belonged to deported Jewish families. Before we can condemn Berlin too harshly, Setton reminds us that Nazi-era Germany was not so unique. When Kat, a fellow expat from Daphne’s German class, makes a casual antisemitic comment, Daphne is “reminded of a group of students I’d met while I was at Oxford, who thought that vague antisemitism and ‘saying it like it is’ when it came to ‘the Jews’ was somehow avant-garde and chic.” In this brief passage, Setton does more legwork than many other writers who more explicitly discuss these themes.
It is in these small, packed moments that Setton is at her best. “Berlin” may seem like a familiar story of Zillennial milieu, but more is happening than what may first appear.
By Bea Setton
Penguin Books, 256 pages
Mara Sandroff is a fiction writer, critic and essayist based in Brooklyn, New York and Tucson, Arizona. She recently earned an MFA in fiction from New York University, and she is an alumna of One Story’s 2019 Summer Writers Conference and Kenyon Review’s 2021 Writers Workshop, a 2021 finalist in Tucson Festival of Book’s Literary Awards, and a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in the Emerging Writer Series of Roxane Gay’s The Audacity. Currently, she is working on a novel that explores Jewish identity, intergenerational storytelling, and a young girl’s coming-of-age in a world that is (possibly) coming to an end. Write On, Door County will support her novel with a residency in December 2023. Find her online at marasandroff.com.