Eliza Clark’s debut novel Boy Parts follows Irina: a twenty-something Newcastle native and a fetish photographer of young boys. She’s endlessly tall and skinny, with red hair and a young Priscilla Presley look to her. Recently put on paid leave from her part-time bartending job, after a young boy’s mother slaps her for putting racy photos of him on her website (she thought he was in sixth form but his older brother’s passport said otherwise, didn’t it) Irina soon falls into a black pit filled with lots and lots of cocaine.
As well as the sudden lack of part-time employment to keep her occupied, Irina’s drug-fuelled descent is brought on by her recent invitation to put on an exhibition of her photography at Hackney Space, which is a big win for her professionally. The junior curator wants Irina to go through all of her archival work and find some hidden gems that can be put on show. As she reflects on her life and how her photography as changed over time, and develops a strange relationship with one of her newer young boy models (Eddie, who works at her local Tesco), Irina starts to push her models’ limits and blur lines, seemingly to no return. Her selfishness reaches new heights, as does her blatant mistreatment of her friends, who she actually calls hangers-on. This all culminates in a series of assaults, an unsettling admission, and a barefooted mental breakdown in a London park.
Clark has a phenomenal writing style – it’s graphically descriptive and Irina has a distinct and consistent voice that I grew to appreciate, even though she’s far from being the most pleasant protagonist. At first though, I actually kind of liked Irina – her penchant for manipulating situations to her benefit is almost immediately obvious, but I’m personally a fan of less-than-perfect female protagonists. That said, Irina is extremely different to main female characters I’ve experienced in other novels. Until further notice, meaning more books read, she’s in a league of her own. Irina asks what she has to do to leave a mark, to be seen as a threat by others, and I certainly saw her as one by the end, but I didn’t at first. Initially, she was sort of nasty but definitively harmless. And this is certainly the result of a dedicated but intangible ever-growing sense of darkness and cruelty embodied by Irina that Clark manages to deliberately and skilfully weave into her characterisation. For the final hundred pages or so, there’s an onslaught of the sadistic things Irina has done and continues to do in the present: her cruel manipulation of Flo, her best friend and ‘pet skinny blonde’; her delight in upsetting others; a wine glass to a man’s face; a bottle in another’s anus.
Boy Parts reads much like an insightful commentary on female criminality, which is often invisible, or rather ignored until it’s too late, and gendered violence and power dynamics. For much of the novel, Irina recounts the harm she has faced at the hands of men, and reflects on whether it was really harmful, and on how violence is instilled into men quite early on. It’s a far too easy (or lazy) to understand her solely as a victim, her behaviour the result of some deep-rooted trauma – especially after we met her mother. But soon she tips the scales of the victim-perpetrator dichotomy, leaning heavily into her abuse of others. She’s equal parts endearing and disgusting. At the same time, Clark comments on the significance of class frequently, as people often lament (on Irina’s behalf) on the ‘lack of opportunities and funding for the arts in the North [of England.]’ She might be practically middle-class at home, but in London, where gentrification means the well-to-do basically cosplay as poor at places like Central St. Martin’s, she’s a ‘weird, fighty, state school chav.’
Irina’s perspective and character, especially when contrasted with Flo’s lengthy blog posts about her on her ‘private’ account, where she wonders if Irina has Borderline Personality Disorder, or is a pathological liar, or lovelorn Eddie letters, is definitively unconventional but exceptionally well done regardless. Boy Parts is a multi-dimensional tale of woman’s growing sense of destabilisation and if you like a well-written, contemporary psychological mind-screw, then this is the book for you.