When I finish a book, I normally give it a day or two before I begin writing my review. I let my thoughts mature for a while, like wine or cheese. I have just finished Boy Parts by Eliza Clark, about two minutes before I started writing this. As soon as I closed the final page, I jumped up and grabbed my laptop, being dangerously low on battery, and frantically started typing out of fear that my thoughts will seep out of my head. Not because the book is forgettable – it is far from that. I have started writing my review because reading this book feels like I’m in a takeaway after a night out, waiting on my order, and I know that as soon as I get home and finish my cheesy chips, I’m going to fall straight asleep and when I wake up, all memories from the night will be replaced by a headache. So, here I am, writing my thoughts before my book-hangover comes. (Just to clarify, no alcohol has been consumed, it’s just the only way to describe this whirlwind of a novel. It's brilliant.)
Boy Parts follows Irina, a photographer from Newcastle, who scouts the streets looking for average-looking men to take part in explicit photographs. After an incident at the bar where she works, Irina is placed on a six-week sabbatical. Luckily, she is then offered an exhibition at a fancy art gallery in London. For this exhibition, Irina must look into the past of her creative journey thus far, back to where it all began. This prompts the resurrection of some uncomfortable memories and sparks a revival in her dark artistic practices. We follow Irina in her self-destructive actions, her toxic relationship with her best friend, and her obsession with a new till-boy at Tesco…
Exploring sexuality, gender, and art, Clark has created a dizzying, hallucinogenic novel that is both laugh-out-loud hilarious and grotesquely disturbing.
Irina is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever come across. She is sharp as a knife, without a single soft edge, cold and narcissistic, yet I found myself rooting for her, wanting to know her opinion on everything. In real life, I would find her (and I cannot stress this enough) so intimidating, and I know for sure she’d judge the hell out of me (probably put me in the ‘basic white girl’ category?) but she has a wicked sense of humour and a 'relatable' millennial voice. Irina is a hurricane of a person, leaving destruction wherever she goes. She lashes out at everyone in her life, yet they all spring back like boomerangs. She knows this too – she uses it to her advantage. Irina is manipulative, using her beautiful looks and femininity as tools to get what she wants. Irina proves that attractive women really can get away with anything. Despite being a narcissistic, manipulative, and outright horrible person, Irina is intoxicating to read about, and I found myself understanding why the people in her life stick around, despite the bad.
The unstable relationships in Irina's life are true to her character. I couldn't have imagined her suddenly having any healthy, stable relationships with her 'I don't care' attitude. The most interesting one to me was between Irina and her 'best friend', Flo. Their friendship is rocky, definitely toxic, and fuelled by jealousy, with a fine line between love and hate. Flo is the epitome of the boomerang in Irina’s life - no matter what Irina does, she’ll always be there. Their relationship reminded me of the friendship between Ottessa Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation and her best friend Reva: complex, uncomfortable, and destructive. If you’re a fan of Moshfegh or into unlikable female characters with complex relationships and unhealthy behaviour, Boy Parts is the one for you.
Next up, we have to talk about Eddie From Tesco. I won't give too much away, so I'll keep it short. Tragic by nature yet loveably cringey, Eddie From Tesco is a complete victim to the cruelties of Irina. Eddie adds to the interesting gender dynamics of the novel, being a male character that fits into the ‘vulnerable female in a horror movie’ role. All in all, he's a bit of a wet lettuce, and Irina feeds off it. He is Damsel-In-Distress material, and it's both hilarious and sad to read. But it is not only Eddie who takes a vulnerable position, but almost all males in the novel become prey to the predatory Irina. As the title suggests, they are reduced to their 'boy parts', not their humanity.
The main thing that attracted me to the novel is its Newcastle setting and Newcastle-born writer, and it truly delivered - this book has huge Northern energy. After living in Newcastle for university, I loved reading about the spaces that Irina occupies in the city and I could picture her in each setting so vividly. I also loved how you can hear the different accents on the page. As I was reading, the voice in my head became Geordie, then Scottish, and even Southern. Clark plays on the reader's expectations by using accents, giving a character a whole background of class, status, and personality through the mere way that they pronounce words (grASS or graass?). I particularly enjoyed the use of stereotypes for Southern characters:
"Little home counties prick. I bet daddy is a banker, and mummy has a column in the local paper. I bet they moved out of the city before he was born, to make sure he grew up safe and sheltered and racist in a constituency where everyone votes Tory and pretends that they don't. I bet everyone shops at Waitrose and has a gilet and wellies and weirdly strong opinions about fracking"
It is incredibly refreshing to see a Northern protagonist (antagonist?) going into a world that is London-centric and ripping it apart, not vice versa. Irina's conversations in the London art spaces also highlight and debunk the stereotypes attached to Northern artists:
“He asks me to tell him about The North because he’s never been any further than Manchester. He’s been to Edinburgh once or twice, but that hardly counts, does it? Because its really just the London of Scotland, isn’t it? How does it compare to London? Don't you feel hemmed in? Don’t you feel like there are no opportunities? No jobs? No arts funding? No money?”
Irina’s annoyance when people act like the North is devoid of art is so relatable to me. If the art world wasn’t so London-centric, they would notice that the North does have opportunities and arts funding, just no way near as much as the capital – and this needs changing. Even within the industry that published this book, this rings true. Clark is one of the many Northern writers who prove that the North does have opportunities and deserves to be talked about.
Overall, I absolutely loved this comic and disturbing novel with its unlikable protagonist, interesting gender dynamics, and Northern energy. Now I wait for the book hangover to subside...
Here are a few (more) of my favourite quotes:
"She likes the men she thinks she's supposed to like... she liked Harry Styles a few years ago, and now she likes that white-bread, absolutely fucking baguette of a lad from Call Me by Your Name" Pg. 21
"I'm quite posh in Newcastle, practically middle-class up here, but there... State-educated, regional accent, a heavy drinker." Pg. 100
"like nipples and swastikas are chill, but a bit of GHB and self-harm and its all ooo, u ok hun?" Pg. 174
"'I bet you're so pleased to get this. The opportunities are so... limited up there' She's looking at me like I clawed my way here out of a fucking coal mine" Pg. 264
Thanks for reading and see you next time,