The Favourite

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‘I don’t think I’ve ever read a more assured or compelling debut. This is beautifully written, sometimes sad, often funny’  — Elly Griffiths

Welcome to the dark heart of the family – the secrets we keep, the memories we treasure and the relationships we feel bound to, but long to escape.

Edward and Isobel haven’t spoken for years and live on opposite sides of the Atlantic. When their mother, Mary, dies unexpectedly, they are thrown together to sort through the family home. With Julie, Edward’s diffident but devoted girlfriend, making an awkward third, each stumbles through the practicalities and funeral preparations, trying to make sense of their emotions and their feelings towards one another.

Then Isobel makes a disturbing discovery and her fateful decision has consequences for them all, challenging their beliefs about the past, hopes for the future, and understanding of Mary’s role in keeping them at once apart and together.

This utterly immersive novel is rich with insightful and wickedly comic observations of family members behaving badly in stressful situations – of sibling rivalries, a parent torn between the two, and a grieving process that takes time to unfold.

Beginning in a small coastal town during the Spring Bank Holiday, the novel moves forward through the point of view of each of the characters in turn, and culminates on Christmas Eve.

Disclaimer Magazine

25 July 2017

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. 

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The Bookbag

13 June 2017
Siblings Edward and Isobel Vernon haven't spoken in years and live on opposite sides of the Atlantic. When their mother Mary dies unexpectedly, they are thrown together to sort through the family home. With Edward's diffident but devoted girlfriend, Julie, making an awkward threesome, each stumbles through the practicalities of funeral preparation and house clearing, trying to make sense of their emotions and their feelings toward one another. Isobel makes a disturbing discovery and her fateful decision has consequences for all of them, challenging their beliefs about the past, hopes for the future and understanding of Mary's role in keeping them at once apart and together.

Author S V Berlin was born and raised in London, and has worked as a copywriter, facilitator, speechwriter, and, in a rather surprising career move, a Wilderness search and rescue professional. She now lives in Manhattan, and The Favourite is her debut novel.

The death of a loved one is the starting point for a lot of novels - families drawn back together, secrets uncovered and conversations opened up by the raw rage that grief can bring. As much as that sounds like ripe pickings for an author to create a fantastic plot, it can also lead to a predictable lead - a family member dies, a secret is uncovered, drama happens, and everything is resolved with an element of closure. Sound familiar? Thought so. Don't be expecting that here though - S V Berlin has taken those elements and brought them together to craft something original, surprising, and immensely skilled considering it's a debut novel.

It's in the character work that Berlin really shines - creating a trio of people who are real - at turns relatable and unlikeable. Telling the story from the perspective of the three characters, sometimes showing the same moment from the three distinct viewpoints, allows the reader indepth access into the thoughts and motivations that drive these characters. Berlin's skill is such that one character can come across as wholly unpleasant and unlikeable in one chapter, then turning things so that the same character seems good and relatable the next moment. It's a real balancing act, and one that must take some considerable skill. Those characters take part in a plot that initially seems rather mundane - a daughter returns home after the death of her mother, and is met by her brother and his girlfriend. From there, the plot forges a new and rather fascinating path - twisting in unexpected directions and keeping the reader on their toes throughout. Underneath the gentle suburban drama that appears to be on the surface here is an intricately crafted plot featuring three fascinating characters – it's a read well worth your time, and a fantastically assured debut.

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