By Eliza Clark
Harper Perennial/HarperCollins Publishers; paperback, 304 pages; $18.99; available today, Tuesday, May 23rd
Eliza Clark was born in the UK in 1994. Her debut novel Boy Parts was released in July 2020, and was made Blackwell's Fiction Book of the Year. In 2022, Eliza was chosen as a finalist for the Women's Prize Futures Award for writers under 35 and was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2023. Her next novel, Penance, is due for release in 2023.
The heroine of this captivating novel is Irina, a tall stunning redhead who is put on a sabbatical from her job at a bar when a woman storms in, strikes her and leaves. She cries in front of her bosses, but deep down, she is thrilled.
Irina is now free to pursue the art that landed her at the far end of the punch from that woman, who is also a mother. Camera slung low, she takes explicit photographs of average looking young men she discovers in her travels through Newcastle, such as from a chance encounter on the bus or the checkout line in the supermarket.
The narrative voice Irina uses to tell the story shows her to be scathingly observant and brutally, hilariously clear about her own motives and the mixed motives of those who are in her life, including her obsessively ambivalent best friend and the shy boys she poses in erotic, disturbing poses.
Irina is both the party girl who will debate the wisdom of cutting coke in the club's ladies' room, or acidly weigh the widsom of her best friend's wardrobe choices. Overriding all of that is her ambition to leave Newcastle behind and be an artist in the larger world.
While Irina feels exiled from the London art scene, her talent is still getting noticed. She is invited to display her work at a fashionable London gallery, and it is also a chance for her to revive her career and escape from the rut of clubbing and extreme cinema she's fallen into.
As Irina prepares for the exhibit, she delves into her archives and follows clues she left for herself about a series of images she took years earlier. She thinks she can hold it together, but this sends her on a self-destructive tailspin.
Clark writes this in a refreshing way, as there really aren't traditional chapters, but parts on who she encounters in her journey, and they have titles such as Dean/Daniel, Juvenilia, Will, Eddie From Tesco, and Remy. It is an accessible style because there are text messages and emails as they would appear on a screen, so visually it jumps out to the reader and makes you immerse yourself even more into the story.
This excerpt is from the section called Freshers: "I wake up a full twenty-four hours later on my sofa, bag of chips completely defrosted in my lap. I bin them, and promptly head to the shower, where I sit under the spray for a solid half an hour, wedged into the bottom of the bath.
I had one of those horrible post-party dreams. I don't usually have dreams. If I do, they're always these repetitive, black-and-white things, where I'm squeezing through a series increasingly small doors, or chasing something, or losing teeth. That is, unless I've drunk a lot, or taken something.
I dreamt about a boy. The boy from the toilet, I think. He was sitting at a bus stop, and I was trying to speak to him. He started screaming, and I tried to cover his mouth. My hand slipped inside him, down his throat. His head fell off. Still shrieking, his head was looped around my arm like a bracelet, my hand poking out the bottom of his neck. I flicked the head off my wrist, and it smashed on the ground like a plat. Then I woke up.
The dye I brighten my hair with tints the water a rusty shade of orange; it pools behind me, damned by my thighs which squeak against the bath when I move. Shampoo, conditioner and three going-overs with the most pungent soap Lush has to offer, and I still feel like the smell of Monday night is on me. My nana, a heavy smoker, used to wash her hair with half a cup of laundry detergent; I bet that'd do the trick for me now. I can't get the smell of fags (editor's note: British term for cigarettes) and booze and weed out of my hair.
I give up after an hour, too hungry for another round of shampoo and conditioner.
The food in my house is limited, but I can't bring myself to leave. I'm not getting a takeaway: the solo hangover-takeaway is the domain of women who eat their feelings.
Bag salad it is, I suppose. I grab one from the fridge and open it. I drain a tin of tuna and dump it in the bag, giving it a little shake. I chuck in a handful of olives, a spoonful of mustard, give it another shake and it's basically a Nicoise salad. I go back to the sofa and check my phone: two percent battery and fifty-odd notifications, which makes me want to hurl the f**king thing through the window.
I like partying, but I loathe the aftermath. I need to stop letting people have my phone number. Maybe that's something to do while I'm off - new sim card, new phone even. I've got that cash from Mr B burning a hole in a pocket. My phone purrs greedily when I plug it in. Four missed calls from Flo, a series of texts from her, from Will, and one or two from Finch. Finch, I check first; he's just letting me know he sent me his photos, and could I look at them when I'm finished vomiting, and later, could I ring Flo back when I'm awake and able. I reply to him first. I don't quite have the strength for Will's essay, or Flo's simpering apologies. I have twenty texts from Flo and seventeen from Will.
Later. I leave my phone in the kitchen, opting to spend the afternoon in the arms of my archive. All my uni stuff is in my studio. I grab the first two boxes and drop them in my living room. I set myself up on the floor with a coffee, a cushion, and my Salade Nicoise dans un sac.
I crack open the lid of box one, marked CSM, FRESHERS in Sharpie. I only applied to art schools in London, and I got into a few, but went for Central Saint Martins in the end. It seemed like the coolest one, to be honest. Colin told me not to; he said the CSM Fine Art cours was more for people chasing shock value than people with any actual talent, that it'd be a different story if I was doing fashion, or something, but I wasn't. He was half right.