The halo effect in Eliza Clark’s ‘Boy Parts’

Eliza Clark’s debut novel combines horror with comedy. It has been compared to the likes of Trainspotting and American Psycho – particularly in the second half which suddenly accelerates into the grotesque. The protagonist (and antagonist) Irina is perhaps the most unlikeable narrator I have ever come across. She is psychotically apathetic towards everyone, she abuses men, and only sees the world through a superficial lens – literally, as she is a photographer.

As a photographer, Irina subverts the male gaze by capturing men in vulnerable, sexual poses. Eddie from Tesco is one of her favourites to photograph, as he oozes meekness and submissiveness. She abuses him so much in the photographs that he cries, and then he apologises to her for crying, something that does not move her at all. There has been a wide range of discussion over the abhorrent actions Irina commits, as well as the motif of sex and abuse. Yet, one thing I think is important when analysing this book is the use of psychological term ‘the halo effect’ that benefits (and plagues) Irina throughout the novel.

In brief, the halo effect refers to the tendency to allow one specific trait, or our overall impression of a person, company or product, to positively influence our judgment of their other related traits. Irina is frequently described as beautiful throughout the novel and this is something of which she is aware and actively strives for. She constantly works out and eats salads in order to maintain (what she deems as) a desirable physique, and borderlines on having an eating disorder in order to maintain what the men in her life deem as attractive. This level of attraction allows her to seduce men in order to capture their photos, and as the novel progresses, it seemingly allows her to get away with attempted murder. By being beautiful, Irina is perceived as harmless by the men she encounters; thus, she is attributed with positive traits due to her attraction, in spite of the fact that she is a narcissist abuser.

The halo effect is a concept of which Eliza Clark was aware and purposely utilised, as she revealed in a podcast interview with The Brighton Book Club. The author also revealed in a separate interview with The Writing Life that she dislikes the popular conception of beautiful female characters being unlikeable but it gets dismissed as “that’s just what she’s like” and actively rejected this representation for Irina. Clark did not want the reader to agree with or particularly like the narrator; instead, she is actively challenging the triviality surrounding female narrators by creating someone so abhorrent.

However, the question remains as to whether Clark successfully did achieve this effect. The men in the book do subscribe to the passive female trope by dismissing Irina’s direct abuse and her admittance to doing such. The halo effect is something that benefits and haunts Irina. Her beauty haunts her as she has been a victim of sexual abuse and grooming from her teacher. Yet, it benefits her in allowing her to have victims of sexual abuse who almost reject labelling her as an abuser because it does not fit their notion of a beautiful woman. The halo effect almost seems to make Irina nihilistic, as it seems that no action of hers can be either good or bad, as it will always be dismissed. We see this in the last chapter when she reveals to Uncle Stephen on a date that she attempted to kill his nephew Remy, and he laughs and replies as if she were discussing a recent holiday.  The book ends with her potentially hitting him with glass (it’s unclear whether this is hallucinated) and walking out of the upmarket restaurant without paying, knowing no one will chase her because she will never suffer from consequences. The reader is left with the lasting impression that Irina will go through life abusing people without punishment, as the world only ever sees her beauty.

Featured image: by name_ gravity via Unsplash.

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