Content warning: This article contains references to rape, sexual assault and physical abuse.
“You live in a woman’s body. You’re vulnerable. No matter what you think, you’re vulnerable…” writes Elize Clark describing her antiheroine, moments after having depicted her abusive tendencies. It makes one question why Clark insists that her most nefarious character is also the most defenseless.
Eliza Clark’s debut novel, “Boy Parts,” centers Irina, an art school graduate in England working on nude photography. Her work is selected to appear in a renowned London exhibition, which gives her the inspiration to revive her career, leave her job at a bar and detach herself from her ex-girlfriend and a life of partying. However, it takes a lot for this artist to be satisfied with her work, and soon the novel reveals how Irina’s muses become victims of the artist’s gaze.
“Boy Parts” has been compared to other contemporary novels with self-destructive and abusive female antiheroines, like Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” or classic horrors like “American Psycho.” However, its dark humor and violent nature aside, the subtleties of “Boy Parts” separate it from its contemporaries and predecessors.
Clark’s use of dialogue is especially realistic and hooks you into the novel with funny undertones. Despite the serious themes of the book, the reader is always met with humor and pop culture references which combat Irina’s cynical character and the vicious realities of the plot. Clark’s efforts to portray her characters as relatable young adults despite their exaggerated personas ultimately render the novel an enjoyable read.
Irina’s abusive tendencies are clear from the start of the novel. She shares explicit photos of one of her models with her friends despite having promised him she would keep them to herself. Deep under the influence of drugs and alcohol, however, this instance of invasion of privacy seems like a friendly joke to Irina. When the same model drugs Irina and violates her body, Clark shows how no one in the book has a healthy understanding of consent, and their lives have become a playground for power and abuse.
Irina focuses her manipulation and physical harm onto her newest model, Eddie, taking advantage of the boy’s self-consciousness. Afraid of looking weak, Eddie pretends to enjoy Irina’s abuse and soon loses himself in a false reality, completely obsessing over his torturer. Through Eddie’s desperation, Clark portrays the thought process of the abused, how easily he convinces himself he was not a victim as manipulation of his reality becomes his only route to escape. Irina’s unquenchable thirst for power is only ignited by Eddie’s rejection of victimhood and the cycle of abuse remains.
Stories that subvert expected gender dynamics and portray narratives of abusive female protagonists are not uncommon, surprisingly, from Lady Macbeth to “Thelma and Louise,” to “Gone Girl”. But unlike the protagonists of those stories, Irina and her crimes go unnoticed to the point that she can hurt people in public and remain almost invisible.
For Irina, it is frustrating to see Eddie beg to be with her when all she has done is hurt him. She feels her actions have no impact when people constantly deny that she could be the villain because of her gender. Despite being the perpetrator, Irina feels a sense of vulnerability because of her identity as a woman. No matter how cruel her actions get, she struggles to define herself outside of gender norms that render her the opposite of someone brutal and vicious.
Clark shows how our perception of gender roles can perpetuate cycles of abuse. But beyond that, through an exaggerated murderous character whose crimes go shockingly unseen, she also highlights the sense of invisibility felt by women defining themselves beyond said gender roles.
Irina’s invisibility as a woman implies her art’s invisibility too. Clark meticulously portrays Irina’s struggle to produce art she finds to be substantial. Disturbingly, she only sees that her work has an effect when it leaves a physical impact on her subjects — an irremediable pain. The shot that leaves her the most satisfied is not an elaborate one with immaculate props and a genius metaphor, but a bloody picture of “her boy” taken with her cell phone. She daydreams about becoming a serial killer artist that people will talk of, someone with a legacy, someone visible through the blurry pages of history. Through Irina’s struggle to be satisfied with her work, Clark unmasks another side of the art industry, one where artists and their muses go to inconceivable lengths to produce work that will be cherished and remembered by the public eye.
Irina’s invisibility despite her viciousness is also a commentary on systemic sexism, the misogyny that has been buried deep within the roots of our culture over time. Society’s connotation behind “woman” — an often meek, naive and petit figure — clashes with the stereotypical characteristics of a predator. In her 2019 novel “A Certain Hunger,” Chelsea G. Summers writes about a food critic, Dorothy Daniels, who also turns out to be a cannibal with an appetite for her ex-boyfriends. Dorothy once says: “Feminism comes to all things but it comes to recognizing homicidal rage the slowest,” echoing Irina’s frustration.
“Boy Parts” is a critique of the male gaze and an exposure of the art industry’s alarming reality, but it is also a story of escapism; the story of a protagonist who wants to escape her invisibility as a woman, who wants to make it in the world, who kills to be seen and to leave a mark and who does it the only way she has seen other men do it too.
Beyond being a must-read for horror fans, “Boy Parts” alludes to existential and feminist themes aiming for an audience much broader than thriller readers and “American Psycho” enthusiasts. The book ultimately portrays Irina’s nihilist outlook on life as she realizes leaving a mark in the world as a woman is hard. Clark produces a piece of work that follows a trend persisting lately in literature: communicating feminist ideas through cynical and controversial woman protagonists. And, amongst the several pieces of media that does this, hers is definitely one you should pick up.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.