Penance: From the author of BOY PARTS
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Clark’s flagged the drawn-out death of American teen Shanda Sharer as a key inspiration but there are distinctive echoes too of the kind of commercial crime fiction devoured by teenage girls – like Carlene Thompson’s In the Event of my Death which revolves around the aftermath of a similar murder. But, like David Peace in his “Red Riding Trilogy,” Clark seems to be using Joni’s murder and its Yorkshire setting, fictional seaside town Crow-on-Sea, to construct an oblique commentary on fault lines in British society particularly those that crisscross the long-neglected North. Joni’s death takes place on the night of the Brexit referendum, highlighted by making one of the killers, Angelica, the daughter of a UKIP politician eager to see his Brexit dreams fulfilled. Like the many actual seaside towns so significant to pro-Brexit campaigns, the predominantly-white Crow-on-Sea is in the throes of inexorable decline. In a county infamous for high levels of violent crime it’s overshadowed by a cabal of right-wing men, a miniature cesspit of small-scale corruption and exploitation: Angelica’s father shamelessly trades on his relative wealth and local clout; he boasts about his former connection to disgraced celebrity Vance Diamond a serial paedophile once active in the area and a ringer for real-life Jimmy Saville; and another of the killers Dorothy or Dolly Hart seems likely to have been sexually abused by her father, a former Yorkshire police officer. The window into true crime podcasts and tumblr felt really authentic and broke up the prose nicely, really enjoyed those sections. You mentioned people taking part in serial killer fandoms in an ironic way, but it’s often difficult to work out what is ironic online: when is someone doing a bit or making fun of something and what is serious engagement with a belief, subculture or discourse.
BP: One thing I really loved about Penance was how much of early 2010s Tumblr you put in there. All the creepypasta stuff and references to Slenderman. I feel that was such a huge part of the adolescence of our generation. A brutal murder sits at the centre of Eliza Clark’s Penance. A group of teenage girls set another girl on fire. But the story doesn’t cause an outrage. It doesn’t hit the headlines. The Brexit vote is seen as a more pressing news item. Now, journalist Alex Z. Carelli has taken it upon himself to be the definitive chronicler of the arson murder in Crow-on-Sea. Clark’s novel is a metafiction, a pastiche of a true-crime book that includes witness interviews, extensive histories, podcast transcripts and more. In terms of internet culture, the novel explores how easily the online radicalisation of young, vulnerable people can occur, with fans in online fandom communities like tumblr feeding into each other’s obsession until everything starts to derail – and to what degree onlookers are complicit as they watch it all unfold in real time.Eliza Clark: It all came together gradually. It took me quite a long time to write Penance compared to Boy Parts . But also, I did want to do something more formally ambitious. I wanted to prove that I could do something very different to Boy Parts , to myself and to readers. Placed on sabbatical from her dead-end bar job, she is offered an exhibition at a fashionable London gallery, promising to revive her career in the art world and offering an escape from her rut of drugs, alcohol, and extreme cinema. The news triggers a self-destructive tailspin, centred around Irina’s relationship with her obsessive best-friend, and a shy young man from her local supermarket who has attracted her attention…
The characterisation is brilliant, specifically in terms of how Clark writes the teenage characters navigating the discomfort of adolescence and trying to forge a sense of self in a small, suffocating seaside town (relatable). She also perfectly, and horrifyingly, captures the cruelty of teenage female friendship groups and how awful teenagers can be to one another. BP: There’s also all the weird serial killer stuff that was on Tumblr though, like I remember the Jeffrey Dahmer flower crowns and the weird fandom around the Columbine dudes. Remember when everyone thought the Boston Bomber was really hot? Like what an insane time. Written when she was 24, in eight months of weekends off from a day job at Newcastle’s Apple store, Boy Parts has so far sold 60,000 copies, she says: strong numbers for any literary debut, especially one from a tiny independent house such as north London’s Influx Press, which said yes to Clark’s cold pitch after she was snubbed by 12 agents. The book went more or less unreviewed – coming out in the plague summer of 2020 didn’t help – yet steadily amassed word-of-mouth buzz. About a year and a half after publication, Clark began to notice an extra digit on her royalty cheques. “It was TikTok. I don’t use it, so I had no idea. One of my friends said, it’s everywhere, there are videos about it that have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of views.”clark's research game is strooong in this one; she has constructed a world full of fleshy characters and compulsive plotlines that completely swallowed me whole.
Any lingering suspicions that Clark is a mere provocateur will be banished by Penance, which – though it won’t appeal to all tastes – is a work of show-stopping formal mastery and penetrating intelligence. There’s none of the lazy writing that occasionally blemished Boy Parts (where one character is “pretty as a picture and thin as a rake” and, a few lines later, “flat as a board”). Whereas most contemporary novels feel like variations on a few fashionable themes, Newcastle-born Clark seems oblivious to the latest metropolitan literary preoccupations. How many writers, for instance, would set their much-heralded new work in the unglamorous leave-voting northern town of “Crow-on-Sea”? It’s here that, a bogus foreword informs us, the action of the book we’re about to read – Penance by true-crime journalist Alec Carelli – takes place. I absolutely love a book which has multiple perspectives, multiple data sources and timelines so I knew I would love this. I’m also a true crime cynic so I felt this was an intriguing concept from my perspective.Instead of English, she studied art, first in Newcastle then in London. No good at drawing – or so she felt – and “too shy” (unlike the narrator of Boy Parts) to ask people to pose for photos, she found that what she most enjoyed was writing a dissertation on how Michel Foucault’s ideas of surveillance play out in the online era. By day, she sold posh undies at Agent Provocateur, having previously worked in bars. Returning home on graduation meant pulling pints again (“there’s not a lot of luxury retail where I’m from”), but this time she wasn’t able to blag a drink on shift – a perk she’d enjoyed in London – and the bouncers were useless: “I’d be dead sober, there’d be a man sexually harassing me and my manager would be like, ‘Well, he’s a paying customer.’” Eliza Clark: Definitely Rachel Munroe’s Savage Appetites and Francisco Garcia’s We All Go Into the Dark . There is a really fabulous book about the Raoul Moat incident called You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat) by Andrew Hankinson. And if people are looking for something else fictional there’s a really fantastic web comic by Max Graves, a really interesting trans comic artist – the first part of it is called Dog Names. It’s a character study of a teen boy who was caught up in a murder and he’s also chronically online and won’t get off Tumblr. I read it shortly after I finished Penance and was just blown away by how fresh and how interesting it is. I think someone should give him loads and loads of money for it. This is a book which is about being a teenage girl and it made me remember how brutal it is to be a teenage girl. The friendships, the fallouts, the drama. It’s also of course a story about murder.