Shiny Prize Season – Penance by Eliza Clark – Dylan Thomas Prize

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Review by Laura Tisdall

In her debut, Boy Parts, Eliza Clark brilliantly demolished the ‘disaster woman’ trope with her portrait of Irina, a deliciously callous young woman who’s on the prowl for men to photograph in barely-consensual situations. Her second novel, Penance, turns the lens on teenagers. It’s a fictionalised true-crime narrative put together by journalist Alec Carelli, looking for his next big hit after his last two books flopped. It explores the horrific killing of sixteen-year-old Joan by three of her classmates in a run-down seaside town in north-east England, and digs deep into their complicated real-life friendship networks, with grudges, loyalties and rivalries dating back to primary school, as well as Tumblr, Insta and creepypasta online cultures. Carelli is invested in presenting Joan’s murder as a result of the three perpetrators’ interest in the occult and in earlier crimes committed by juveniles, obsessively examining school shooting fanfics and search histories that reveal a fascination with online horror stories like ‘The Russian Sleep Experiment’. 
Is there any social group in contemporary fiction that’s written about as often, and yet so consistently misrepresented, as teenage girls? Books about teenage girls that are aimed at adults tend to evoke ‘feverish’ and ‘febrile’ social circles, presenting female adolescence as fragile and dangerous, frightening and vulnerable. It’s a classic example of how young people are always presented as victims or threats: sweet and innocent, or dark behind the mask. Nevertheless, I’m always on the hunt for fiction like Penance that presents teenagers as people, perhaps people who are stuck in an unusually claustrophobic social situation – imagine if adults were forced to attend an institution with others their own age, day in, day out, and judged by how they coped? – but people, nonetheless.

As teens of my generation know as well as teens of the 2010s, ‘goth’ cultures or ‘satanism’ are often mistakenly blamed for infamous juvenile crimes like the Columbine high school shooting. Clark invites us to read between the lines of Carelli’s account to see how the girls’ actions may have been rooted in different, IRL, motives: childhood abuse, neglectful parenting, back-and-forth bullying, earlier traumatic death, and sexual jealousy. It appeals to adult imaginations to believe that teens do bad things because of ‘The Internet’, allowing us to hark back to a supposedly idyllic pre-internet age; this also means we don’t have to take their friendships and enmities seriously, or accept that what happens at school really matters. The recent murder of Brianna Ghey, and the way the press has blamed smartphones and social media even though she was killed by two of her classmates, tragically shows this narrative playing out again.

Penance is so impressive partly because it’s utterly gripping and partly because it feels so real. I was a teen in the early 00s rather than the mid-2010s, but replace Tumblr with LiveJournal and creepypasta with dark Harry Potter fanfiction, and I was suddenly back in my all-girls’ comprehensive school, remembering how carefully we kept tabs on what had happened in the past, and how online cultures may have been grim but offered a welcome escape. (Also, one of the characters may create a ‘torture dungeon’ in Sims 4, but given that everybody I knew who played Sims 1 took the ladder off the swimming pool so their Sims were forced to swim back and forth until they died, I found it hard to judge – I even named one of my Sim victims after a girl I disliked at school 🙃🙃) Clark treads a difficult line here, but I think, in the end, she manages to make these girls into people – I especially liked how she wrote self-aware Jayde, a teenage lesbian who has little time for online drama, and sensible Lauren, a relatively popular girl who tries to encourage her friends to be kinder.

One of Joan’s murderers writes about how she wanted to create a ‘pocket hell’ in their seaside town, and it would be easy to say that going to an all-girls’ school, or indeed any kind of secondary school, is a kind of pocket hell. But I don’t think this is what Clark is trying to say. Instead, her fictional institution plays out as a microcosm of wider society, just more concentrated, and more intense, because of the peculiar ways in which schools function. Schools may be bad places, but that isn’t because teenagers are bad people: it’s because of the artificial social situation we make them navigate at the same time as telling them that this is the period of their life that determines their entire future. 

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A version of this review first appeared on Laura’s blog.

Eliza Clark, Penance (Faber & Faber, 2023). 978-0571371761, 434 pp., hardback.

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