Art imitates life in Calla Henkel’s dark and brilliant debut novel.
I am very rarely drawn to thrillers, but after reading ‘Other People’s Clothes’ I can 100% feel the beginning of a crime novel phase.
‘2009. Hoping to escape the pain of the recent murder of her best friend, art student Zoe Beech finds herself studying abroad in the bohemian capital of Europe–Berlin with fellow exchange student Hailey Mader. Obsessed with the Amanda Knox trial while idolising Warhol and Britney Spears, Hailey wants nothing more than to be an art star. On Craigslist, Hailey unknowingly stumbles on an apartment sublet posted by a well-known thriller writer. Feeling as though they’ve won the lottery, the girls move into the high-ceilinged prewar flat. Soon they realize that their landlady, Beatrice, is watching them–and her next book appears to be based on their lives. Taking stock of their mundane routines–Law and Order binges and nightly nachos–Hailey insists they become people worthy of a novel. As the year unravels and events spiral out of control, they begin to wonder whose story they are living, and how will it end?
This book really is doing the most; glittering Berlin nightlife, pretentious ‘art-bros’ and an Amanda Knox-esque murder mystery. Plot, plot and more plot, yet it works miraculously well. Henkel kept me guessing the entire time; I truly had no idea what was going to happen next but I was desperate to get to the end.
‘Staring at myself, I realised I had always existed in comparison to her, and now my reflection was left holding both of us. She was inside of me, I assumed Jesse knew it too. Being with him felt like being with her, like she was a secret only we truly knew.’
Our narrator is Zoe, an aspiring artist who is reeling from the unsolved murder of her best friend. Shy, unassuming and completely unsure of herself, Zoe is defined by her codependent relationships with female friends, morphing herself into an image of whoever she is closest to.
Henkel’s characterisation of this slightly unlikeable narrator is actually super clever – although Zoe is a pretty pathetic character, a book with this much going on needs a passive character to balance everyone else out. Her roommate Hailey, for example, is the exact opposite of Zoe. She doesn’t wait for excitement – she makes things happen.
“You get fixated, don’t you?”
At the centre of the drugs, sex and murder that gives the novel it’s dark and dirty atmosphere is the difficult relationship between Zoe and Hailey. With one friend obsessed with the other, jealousy and bitterness arises. Coupled with a paranoid sense that Beatrice is watching them, it’s not long before the two friends come to a head, with disastrous consequences.
One thing that I did note was the absence of a male love interest as a point of contention in the novel. While we do hear about Zoe’s ex-boyfriends intermittently, the focus of the novel is remains on complex female friendships and the nuances of such close relationships. Henkel definitely passed the Bechdel test.
If you’re in need of a plot-driven book to yank you out of a reading slump, I truly can’t recommend this enough.