Like the rest of my social media feed, I have read Boy Parts recently. I am a big fan of Influx Press as a publishing house and trust what they publish, but as soon as I found out this book was mainly set in the North East, I had to buy it. As you probably know if you have been here for a while, I care a lot about seeing the North East represented positively but also realistically in media.
Boy Parts is mainly set in Newcastle and follows Irina who takes explicit photographs of average looking men. She works a dead-end bar job but is offered a career defining exhibition in London. This could be her chance to escape her post-graduate rut and be the world-famous artist she knows she is. This is gross, darkly funny, and so Northern. The part complaining about the train that stops at Northallerton really spoke to me and love that classic North East niche content.
Irina is terrifying and I kinda mean that as a compliment. She is not a good person but she is addictive to read about. She is dry and witty, she is complicated and troubled, she is simultaneously such a real character but also clearly a work of fiction. I do not get completely lost in a book often but this one I did. I read this over four days and when I would put the book down I would feel slightly dazed as I re-entered reality. I still feel a bit empty now and I’m considering re-reading it again before 2020 ends (if it ever ends).
What this book must be applauded for is its depiction of the North East and especially Newcastle. Clark has first-hand experience of the North/South divide from living in both Newcastle and London and the novel embodies that really well. When I moved out, I didn’t move to Newcastle instead I moved out of the North east. That is a story for another time and not relevant to this blog but the way uni culture is shown in this book is one of the reasons I didn’t upgrade to Newcastle after I left Middlesbrough. The appropriation and embodiment of working-class culture by middle-class students and the ridiculing of the North East accent in a North East city. This book is a lot of things but it is very much a book about class structure in British society. I was constantly nodding and recognising conversations in the nightclubs and in the bars Irina occupied because they were real. Irina’s time in London also amplifies the class divide within the arts. The other artists at the exhibition are from wealthier backgrounds and see Irina as a charity case. She must feel so lucky to be given an opportunity because that doesn’t happen in the north. This comment sticks with Irina but it also spoke to me. Irina deserves her gallery space because of her talent but many see her as the token Northerner for “diversity”.
The acknowledgement of the North/South divide reminded me of Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, which was one of my favourite books last year. Saltwater is a much more fragmented novel and delves deeper into finding yourself in your roots but, like Boy Parts, it is another great example of being a Northerner in a Southern environment. Irina, like a true North East lass, dresses up for her exhibition but she arrives overdressed. The legendary Oscar Wilde said “You can never be overdressed or overeducated” but it turns out you can be overdressed for a fancy exhibition. Irina dressing up whereas everyone else around her is not highlights the difference in North and South cultures.
Boy Parts is very much of its time and that’s what makes it so brilliant. I know exactly where in Newcastle we are talking about. I know that meme reference and the significance of that film reference. I love the idea of readers visiting this in a couple of decades time and simply thinking “what”? Clark’s Irina offers interesting and daring takes on contemporary art and culture. It is effortless and hilarious.
I have seen Clark’s novel compared to the works of Ottessa Moshfegh and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I can see some similarities, and if you like these writers than this is the book for you, but Boy Parts is something else. This book is a diamond. It is fresh and intelligent. I hope Clark continues to receive recognition for her debut as it is everything contemporary literature should be.
This review is a bit rambly and disjointed but that is the purpose of this blog. It fills me with joy seeing such amazing North East talent. I will be reading everything Clark brings out in the future.