AN EXPLORATION OF DEATH, ESTRANGEMENT, TRANS-ATLANTIC TENSIONS, AND CULTURAL DIVIDES
From renowned indie press Myriad Editions is The Favourite, an assured, compelling debut by the elusive, London-born Manhattan-based S.V. Berlin, who is very much a writer to watch.
Myriad Editions prides itself on unearthing and nurturing fresh literary talent, reaping nominations and awards in the process, such as the Scottish Book Trust Pick of the Year in 2014 for Liam Murray Bell’s The Busker and the People’s Choice Wales Book of the Year award in the same year for Tyler Keevil’s The Drive. Aside from their imprint of diverse fiction, from bone-chilling crime thrillers to scintillating literary debuts, Myriad also boasts a wide array of graphic books and atlases, such as Una’s Becoming Unbecoming, a memoir of male violence in 1970s Yorkshire.
The Favourite explores the strained relationship of siblings Edward and Isobel, who haven’t spoken for two decades and are in fact separated by the mighty Atlantic Ocean. Their mother Mary’s sudden death breaks their silence and forces the siblings together as they sort through the numerous belongings in their family home, which hark back to happier times. They are accompanied in this effort by Edward’s seemingly unassuming long-term girlfriend Julie, who proves to be more of a hindrance than a help and is smitten with a pseudoscientific self-help book entitled Pathways to Possible.
This novel is slow moving and deeply character focussed. It is in descriptive portrayals of subtly relatable characters that Berlin really excels. From Julie’s cruel, conniving sister Lorraine to Edward’s penchant for perusing the travel section of broadsheet newspapers, Berlin crafts her characters with aplomb. Many of them tread a fine line between likeability and unlikability, which renders them even more realistic, particularly given the trying circumstances they face within the book.
Furthermore, one cannot help but wonder if Isobel’s bustling Manhattan lifestyle mirrors that of Berlin herself, with all its doubts and decadence. It delves implicitly into current transatlantic tensions by highlighting the culture clash that divides its central estranged siblings even further.
The Favourite forays briefly into what it means to be a Brit abroad and how decades of living in New York has left its mark on Isobel’s accent, worldview and even her mannerisms. The reader ultimately learns that Isobel is not quite living the high life, as her brother Edward jealously assumes, but is, in fact, pondering a return to Blighty, spurred on by the seeds of discontent sewed by her mother’s untimely demise.
The Favourite brims with under the surface tensions, long held regrets and damaging assumptions, which really make the reader reflect on their own relationships, particularly the more troubling ones. For anyone who has experienced estrangement, it feels at once familiar and detached, not unlike the indescribable void left in the wake of failed relationships. It is a novel that stresses the importance of honest yet considerate communication, which is often conspicuous in its absence, causing a whole host of avoidable issues between characters.
It begs the question of whether such a form of communication can, in fact, be attained, even in life’s darkest moments.
Berlin does not focus much on the circumstances of Mary’s death. They are, arguably, of lesser importance compared to the impact this bereavement has upon the novel’s central characters. Their grief is visceral yet somehow contained, partitioned off in order to deal with such grim necessities as overzealous funeral directors and a well-meaning humanist celebrant who cannot help but put her foot in it.
Aside from the characters’ personal experiences of grief, The Favourite also reflects upon wider themes, such as our social, societal perceptions of bereavement and our modern, euphemistic ways of referring to death. Particularly poignant is Isobel’s realisation that her friends are growing tired of her anecdotes about her mother, which leads her to question how else she can go about remembering her. As mourners, we are too often told to let go or move on by well-intentioned friends or acquaintances, in a society that fears death to the point that we collectively conspire to hide what cannot be hidden. That is the harsh reality that death will come for us all one day.
Particularly admirable is the often darkly comic tone Berlin employs to deal with such often stigmatised themes as death and estrangement. Uncomfortable truths are often best faced with a healthy dose of humour and this works very well within The Favourite. Berlin’s use of humour in no way lessens the numerous poignantly sad moments within the book if anything it accentuates them even more. It would be very encouraging indeed to see more authors tackle such troubling themes with such finesse and a refusal to shy away from the grislier facts of life.
Could S.V. Berlin be Myriad Editions’ next rising star? I certainly think so.