Boy Parts is a darkly comic novel about a photographer on a downward spiral, a woman in her late twenties who takes explicit photos of random men she finds in Newcastle. Irina developed her photographic niche at art school in London, but now she’s back in her hometown, handing out her business card to random men who she’d like to take photos of. With a sabbatical from her bar job and the promise of a show at a London gallery, she throws herself headlong into photography, but also the drugs, alcohol, and self destruction which fuel it. But there’s also the new guy in the Tesco near her, and her obsessive best friend with a terrible boyfriend, to deal with, and a lot of broken glass.
The hype around Boy Parts made me want to read it, and it was definitely worth it: a book that pushes at the question of why the aesthetic creeps of literature often are men, and specifically men going after women. Irina is a gripping protagonist you’d never want to be friends with (especially not when you see how she treats the people she hangs around with), messed up and not always sure of reality, but doing it all with a care for how it looks, and what photos she could take of people. The way in which she gives her card out to random men to suggest she photographs them is such a great reversal of what is expected, with her barely remembering who these men are when they follow up, and with them often unsure why they said yes.
The book can be shocking and graphic, but mostly focuses on Irina’s relationships with other people and her constant spirals and blackouts, integrating in texts and emails and the secret blog of Irina’s best friend (who hasn’t wanted to read about what someone is really thinking about them?) to great effect in showing how people react to her, and how she reads what they say. A lot of the tone and plot can be seen as darkly ridiculous, but there’s a lot of serious stuff lurking underneath (as you’d expect), including a lot about consent and the truth. At the same time, the whole edgy art school vibe (which is foregrounded and mocked and critiqued by Irina even as she falls into its traps) is wonderful, giving the book a real distinctiveness that makes it stand out from a lot of the books it could be compared to.
With a horrifically aesthetic antihero in Irina and a gratifyingly Northern setting, Boy Parts is the book for anyone who has ever liked trying to read the edgiest, most shocking books (e.g. my teenage reading obsession with reading things like American Psycho) and now wants that vibe combined with something that pokes fun at modern taboos and issues around gender, consent, sexuality, and control.