The male gaze is inverted in Eliza Clark’s compelling book “Boy Parts”

Boy Parts paperback cover, published by Influx Press (2020)

I got handsy. It’s hard to just look, isn’t it? It’s hard to look, and not touch, not squeeze, or prod, or squash all that soft, private skin they show me.

It takes a compelling book to compel me to write about it. But that’s exactly what Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts is, a compulsive read that gripped my attention so successfully my eyes did not glaze over a single word. When I’d turned the last page, I craved more.

Through the eyes of the protagonist, Irina Sturges, we get a subversive take on the male gaze. A photographer who specialises in—shall we say revealing—photos of men, the male flesh is for Irina to scrutinise.

Whether we’re knowingly aware or not, we are well-acquainted with the male gaze in our media and literature. For those unclear as to what the male gaze refers to, Wikipedia defines the male gaze as:

[The] act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and in literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer.

The unique lens of Irina Sturges gives us a story where men are objects. It pushes us to think about the way women have been framed in our media for decades. But the narrative is more than just an inverted gaze, it’s a story where we can never be sure of reality. Victim blaming and gaslighting galore, Irina’s world is tinged by trauma and the lines between pain and pleasure are blurred. Told predominantly through her voice, whether we are meant to sympathise with Irina is a decision best left to the reader.

The (fe)male gaze

When the camera leers over attractive women on screen, or when an author writes a description that makes you think the writer is more interested in fucking his female characters than developing them, we describe this as likening a woman to a piece of meat. Even if the women in question have character traits, they are framed to be admired for their aesthetics first. Substance is secondary.

So it’s fitting that the most prominent recurring male character in the story is explicitly compared to a piece of meat:

Eddie from Tesco, shall I compare thee to a heavily discounted piece of meat on the reduced shelf at the end of the day? Thou art cheaper and, hopefully, fresher.

Invited to take part in one of Irina’s shoots, Irina spends a great deal of time analysing his physical appearance. The qualities she finds attractive in Eddie are given greater emphasis than any of the substance to his story. Before he’s even in front of a camera she’s picturing the frame.

I make him five foot five (if he’s lucky) and nine stone (if he’s soaking wet). I wave, brightly, from my table, with a big, white smile so he knows I’m happy to see him. He waves back and shuffles over. He’s wearing a slightly-too-tight T-shirt and skinny jeans. He carries his weight on his tummy, his backside and his thighs, like a girl. His arms are like toothpicks, and his thick thighs taper into calves as thin as a bird’s. He has a high waist, and an effeminate swing to his hips. With the freckles, the curls and brown summer skin, I’m smitten.

In fact, when Eddie initially tries to relay personal details about himself, Irina shuts him down. Irina finds the men who willingly show their “soft parts” repulsive, further distancing herself from the living and breathing objects she photographs.

Later, when looking moves to getting “handsy,” more of Eddie’s character is revealed. But when he talks to her about the past, she looks for the images. When he tells her about a sexual experience that was questionably consensual, Irina’s focus is on constructing a mental image for her own pleasure.

Without spoiling too much, Eddie eventually graduates from “a heavily discounted piece of meat” to a “cheeseburger.” But whether Irina comes to see Eddie as a person and drops the food analogies is a question to be answered by reading the novel.

Into Irina

[Beta] males are usually nasty. When you don’t get any pussy and spend your teens falling down the free porn rabbit hole, you end up like one of those freaks with an ahegao profile picture on Twitter and an internet history that’s seventy-five per cent bukkake, twenty-five per cent tragic Google searches.

The key aspect of the novel that makes it so compelling to read is Irina’s voice. Beyond her objectification of men, Eliza Clark has given her a voice that is darkly humorous and so inventive that you just love to hear her talk. The content is often dark, but it’s delivered with an air of casualness that even the most messed up parts of the novel are presented almost like any other day for Irina.

‘There’s this bald feller, gurning his tits off. Looks like Gollum, Gollum in a really rough extended cut, Gollum in Middle Earth After Dark, like one bump to rule them all, one bump to line them, one bump to… something, and in the sesh we bind them’

I mentioned earlier that whether you love or loathe Irina is your decision. Her voice, probably more than her actions, will be the deciding factor. First-person narratives are self-justifying. Nobody—I presume—thinks of themselves as villains. Even those who premeditate heinous acts find excuses for them.

Perhaps that is why, despite even her most immoral decisions, I found myself feeling sympathetic to Irina. Whilst outside voices do enter the narrative through blogs, texts and emails, it’s all filtered through Irina’s perspective. Thus, the book really is her side of the story.

But there’s another aspect to the first-person narrative that makes for compulsive reading…

“when I do things, do they stay?”

The above question comes much later in the novel when Irina is forced to question her reality. I can’t say too much without spoiling some of the more surprising (shocking) scenes in the book. But let’s just say I’m a sucker for an unreliable narrator.

However, there’s a difference with the unreliable narration of Irina. Not just because it’s a one-sided first-person narrative. And it’s not only that she begins to lose touch with reality. It’s that people around her, especially her best friend Flo, accuse her of sensationalising or “filling in the blanks.” This is all euphemistic language to say that the people around her think she’s a liar.

Her best friend Flo has a private blog, which Irina secretly knows about, where she talks about her relationship with “Rini” to hundreds of anonymous followers. The first post we see includes this line:

I *really* think she has undiagnosed bpd [sic] and she doesnt [sic] have many real friends, she’s like INCAPABLE of healthy relationships and she really needs my help??

There’s not enough space in this post to delve into the misconceptions around BPD or the stigmatisation of the personality disorder. What this does, though, is set up an interesting relationship between Irina and Flo.

Irina makes questionable and immoral decisions that cause harm. But her best friend is someone who secretly writes about their private relationship on the Internet, diagnoses her friend despite zero mental health training, and she invites anonymous followers to judge Irina as a toxic human being. But is Flo not also toxic? She’s the one leading a double life: Irina’s friend by day, Rini blogger by night.

Despite Irina’s initial rejection of Flo’s characterisation of her, later events cause her to question whether certain events really did happen to her. We’re pulled into the gaslighting narrative, and whilst we should be reluctant to disbelieve Irina, our only eyes are hers. If she’s doubting herself, are we not invited to do the same?

However, for me, this only reinforced my inclination to like her and root for her. Wouldn’t the alternative be to take the side of the victim blamers?

All this is to say that Irina Sturges is a well-rounded character. Just as real people are flawed and walking contradictions, Irina feels like a very real person who you become as attached to as the people around her. However, much like the people around her, that perhaps makes you another victim of her self-serving manipulations.

Forgive my gluttony, but…

The one thing I can’t decide is how satisfied I am with the ending.

Call me a glutton, but I wanted more and more of this story. There are questions I want answered, and potential routes I’d love to see explored. But I suppose it’s better to wish I had more than be glad it’s over.

Perhaps there were no definitive conclusions that would satisfy. Perhaps it’s better to have questions rather than all the answers. It leaves more room to discuss and speculate.

Real-life rarely offers neat closure that feels truly satisfying. Boy Parts feels like a rather large slice of Irina’s chaotic life. But just like the people Irina’s touched, I could not help but crave more of her chaos. Maybe that says more about me than the book.

Out of 10?

Ratings feel very arbitrary to me. I cannot count the number of times I’ve given something a 10/10 that feels right, but isn’t as 10/10 as this other 10/10, if you know what I mean?

All I can really say is that I loved reading this book, and I’ll likely re-read it someday. That immediately places it amongst my favourite reads. Thus, it probably would be a 10/10, even if it’s not as 10/10 as the books I’d rank amongst my favourite ever.

I was enamoured with Irina’s story, told beautifully by Eliza Clark. If you’ve read to the end of this review and found yourself intrigued, then you’ll probably be enamoured with her story, too.

Find Eliza Clark online via her website or on Instagram and Twitter (@FancyEliza). She also writes her own newsletter called Wikipedia Hole, which you can subscribe to. Buy the physical book directly from Influx Press or get the audiobook on Audible.