Book review: Other People’s Clothes

After a little holiday last week, I’m back. Feeling fully refreshed and raring to go with another fiction review. This week I present to you Other People’s Clothes.

The background to the book

This novel promised to be right up my street. I judged it not by its cover, but by its title and blurb, believing it would be about fashion, complex female friendship and mental health. Upon actually reading the book I discovered that wherever there’s a therapist, an inexplicable murder is not far behind. This hasn’t been my experience in NHS practice yet, but I guess time will tell.

The book is set in 2009 and centres around the lives of Hailey and Zoe. Both in their early twenties and studying art in Berlin. Hailey is sexy, charismatic and determined, whereas Zoe is thoughtful, introverted and cautious. She is also mourning the death of her best friend, and struggling to adapt to life in a new country.

The good and the bad of this Berlin based book

The dialogue is flawless. It genuinely reads like twenty somethings talking to each other. And not how a forty- year-old might imagine they talk. But this isn’t surprising, when you learn that Calla Henkel is also a successful playwright and director. Dazzling dialogue is one part of the novel she’s perfectly nailed.

However, the rest of Other People’s Clothes I struggled with. I found sections of the story disappointingly clunky and slow going. And although I read all about Hailey and Zoe’s exploits, I never felt like I really knew them. They were 2D depictions of party girls, rather than the real fleshed out version. And neither of them are particularly likeable. Beyond the clubs, the clothes and the art classes it’s hard to imagine and care for the characters as real people.

But there may be a reason why Henkel made her main protagonists unknowable and unlovable. And it could be because Hailey and Zoe are both so committed to performing their lives that they can’t actually live them. They filter and curate their activities through the lens of Facebook. If it’s not posted and commented upon, it’s not worth doing. They have little identity beyond impressing others.

And both are lost in, a literal and figurative, cold climate. Berlin is freezing, their flat is constantly cold and there’s no real warmth or connection emanating from the people they befriend. Zoe is wondering about her sexuality and longing for a lover to cling to, while finding herself continuously eclipsed by Hailey’s more outgoing persona.

The themes within Other People’s Clothes

There are so many relevant and topical themes within this book that the timing feels uncanny. There’s the question of identity. The struggling with it, creating of it and then committing to it until the authentic person underneath the charade disappears. There’s the domination of online life – selfies, captions and Facebook likes. And lastly there’s the impact that performing for social media has on self esteem. I find each of these themes so interesting that the murder part of the plot, seems unnecessary. Overkill, in fact.

And then there’s the objectifying of celebrities. Hailey, in particular, is obsessed with the exploits of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. Pouring over pictures of them in clubs, dissecting their outfits and tracking their every move through the internet. It seems uncomfortable and unfathomable now, that these emotionally fragile women were the celebrities of the day. And that the media should so revel in their rapidly declining mental health. Sirin Kale from The Guardian has written a thoughtful article exploring just this. And of course the #FreeBritney movement has also shone a spotlight on the harmful and misogynistic attitudes to women during this decade.

What was life like in 2009?

Which brings me to my last point. What was life like around 2009? Was it really that bad, just 12 years ago? And the short answer is, yes. It was. For me, anyway. This book allowed me to reevaluate and reflect on the attitudes around mental health, sexuality and the role of women that were held at the time.

Like Hayleigh and Zoe, I was in my twenties in 2009. I remember Heat magazine with the circle of shame directing the reader to a celebrity’s cellulite or acne. I remember the cult of size zero on women whose frames were never meant to be so diminutive. And I remember married, male bosses who tried it on because they thought they were entitled to. I recall sexuality was linear, Paris Hilton’s leaked sex tape wasn’t viewed as a violation of her rights. Abuse of power wasn’t a concern and only very troubled people (or Americans) saw a therapist.

So I view this novel from the much safer (for me) vantage point of 2021, and while I can’t say I particularly enjoyed reading Other People’s Clothes I do appreciate the issues it’s exposed. Here’s to the first decade of the current millennium, and hoping we never see another era like it.

Next week I will be reviewing Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library, which I’m fairly confident has no murder in it. And after that, the summers sort of over so I’ll be back to reviewing non- fiction wellbeing books.