The protagonist of Eliza Clark’s debut novel Boy Parts wears a waist trainer under all her clothes. She is rarely seen without stiletto heels despite the fact they make her tower over all the men in her presence. She is a survivor of sexual violence, a less than casual drug user, an erotic photographer and semi-Instagram famous. She is also, most importantly, not a feminist icon.
“I definitely wanted Irina to be perceived as a villain,” says Eliza of her protagonist, a couple of weeks on from the release of her debut novel. “I was actually concerned that if I didn’t make her as horrible as possible she would be upheld as some kind of like feminist icon. Because she’s actually fucking horrible. I didn’t want her to become deified or become a cult heroine. Basically, I didn’t want to make sexy Joker.”
And Irina does do many things that are definitely fucking horrible. Over the course of Boy Parts, the elusive protagonist targets men she likes — on the bus, at work, working on the tills at Tescos — and strokes their egos to get them to model for her. As a photographer, Irina’s work is what the art world would call transgressive, provocative, violent. But as the book goes on, the reader learns that it’s more than just violent imagery. Irina preys on her male subjects, pushing their limits and convincing them to debase themselves in front of her lens, with the interactions growing more and more violent.
“I wanted to write the male characters to feel very sympathetic and also physically vulnerable, to the point where you feel almost concerned for them,” explains Eliza. “I wanted them to be almost painfully cringy and visibly soft. The interesting thing is that when men read the book they often tell me they struggle with these male characters. It’s almost like seeing themselves in literature in a way that they aren’t used to. There are plenty of books that will absolutely rip to pieces every aspect of a female character’s clothing, hair, appearance… but you don’t get that so much with men. I think it might have been a bit of a shock for a couple of blokes to read it and realise like, ‘Oh, that time that I wore a top hat at that house party the girls did realise that that was an affectation and they did laugh at me later’.”
That cruelty, and the way cruelty is gendered, is central to Boy Parts. Irina’s own past and the sexual violence she endured as a teenager and young woman is recounted in an almost blasé way, almost as though it’s something she, and every woman, should expect. By contrast, when the photographer tells people about her own crimes they’re either chuckled at and dismissed as precocious and attention-seeking, or fetishised as sexually transgressive. “I think we really struggle to compute the idea of a violent woman,” says Eliza. “People are comfortable with the idea of an ‘evil’ woman, but not someone who is physically dangerous. We see people like Myra Hindley as an ‘evil woman’, but there was a mental block in the press that people really couldn’t handle the fact she was physically involved in these crimes. There’s been this retrospective rewriting of her involvement as something as a result of coercion and control from Ian Brady.”
“I think in every universe Irina would have been a dick,” the 26-year-old adds. “There’s no universe where she wouldn’t have been a highschool bully or an absolute nightmare to work with, but it’s her experiences with sexual violence and substance abuse — which are very common experiences — that push her over the edge. I’m very interested in the almost daily, quotidian nature of sexual assault, of how common it is. I wanted to explore how that can change you for the worse, and how not every survivor story is a triumphant tale of overcoming something awful and becoming stronger. Sometimes terrible things happen to you and it does change you for the worse, it makes you less trustful and more violently suspicious of men.”
In the past few months and years, it feels like every new book from a young female writer is inevitably compared to Sally Rooney, something Eliza laments. Boy Parts, however, hasn’t had the same comparisons. You get the feeling that if sadboi, chain-wearing Connell Waldron existed in this world, Irina would chew him up and spit him out by the end of the first chapter. Instead, the book has been frequently compared to Fight Club and _American Psych_o, with its protagonist being billed as a female Patrick Bateman. Part of that comparison comes from Irina’s fractious mental state, which deteriorates throughout the book, to the point where she’s unsure, like Bateman, whether she actually committed the violent crimes she remembers. And if they are in fact real, and not the projections of her psychopathic mind, she never receives any societal — or criminal — reprimand.
“Are Irina’s crimes real? You know, I haven’t actually made a decision on that,” Eliza says. “But I’m a really big proponent of ‘death of the author’. So I quite like the idea that it’s there for the reader to interpret; I genuinely haven’t made a decision on it. I think you see everything in the book as happening through her eyes, so you have to make up your own mind whether it’s actually happening or not. I’m really interested in the idea of people who are caught between being a diagnosed psychopath, but still not quite… correct.”
But whether the crimes are real or just Irina’s fantasies, they’re still manifestations of a monstrous personality. In spite of all her protagonist’s repugnance though — or perhaps because of it — Boy Parts is easy to race through, partly because you’re desperate to see just how bad things can get. If you’re a fan of the macabre and the violent, and if you have a strong stomach and a love for true crime, then you’ll probably enjoy Boy Parts. If you loved Alissa Nutting’s Tampa, and you’ve taken Jon Ronson’s Psychopath Test 353285023808 times during lockdown just because you’re bored, then you’ll probably enjoy it. But just don’t expect to like the main character.
“I think I just want people to engage a bit more critically and more artistically with the idea of an unlikeable female protagonist,” Eliza finishes. “You shouldn’t expect them to be your new imaginary friend.”
Boy Parts is out now.