JUSTINE by Iben Mondrup


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Danish author Mondrup (Godhavn, 2014) exposes the underbelly of the contemporary Danish art scene in this novel about a young artist in crisis.

The eponymous narrator's house, inherited from her grandfather, burns down on the first page, destroying all the art she's prepared for an upcoming exhibition. Distraught, she seeks her friends, one a talented painter caught between her artistic potential and the demands of motherhood. Written in short, first-person chapters, the novel cuts between Justine's past—the grandfather she loved, her problematic parents, the girlfriend who no longer wants to see her—and the present-tense aftermath of the fire. The narrative is fractured, the voice confused: "I think I'm some other. Or how should I put it? I've become some other. That other hasn't become me, though. She didn't exist before the fire. Or did she? She's a new condition. At once definitive and boundless. I have no clue where we're off to now." Mondrup depicts the sexism and grittiness of the art world and the ambivalence of the artists convincingly. At the academy Justine and her friends attended, "It wasn't too long before the janitorial staff could no longer tell the difference between what was trash and what was important." But the increasingly unreliable narrator remains enigmatic, and her energetic self-destruction feels postured. "The me that is now is formless, not exactly dissipated, but flailing around, thrashing, reflecting off windows and surfaces." Justine does a great deal of flailing, drinking heavily, cheating on her girlfriend with a string of men she despises, and making stonerlike declarations: "I grope along a chain of Before Now and After. I lift my feet and head in that direction. That direction and not that direction. Now I draw away, now I pull closer." The mystery of what happened on the night of the fire fails to satisfy; we already know she's to blame for her own unhappiness. "You're not too bright," one of her sexual partners observes.

A dark, ultimately frustrating tale of an enfant terrible wannabe.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-940953-48-9
Page count: 218pp
Publisher: Open Letter
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2016


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