One day in 1999, a teen girl named Ali steps across the threshold of a Long Island Stop & Shop and becomes immediately transfixed by a tall, thin, pale creature named Justine. Thus begins Justine, Forsyth Harmon’s illustrated novel that haunts with its depiction of an intense kind of young female friendship that blurs desire and destruction.
The Justine of Justine is not a character we ever have direct access to. Instead, we see her through the obsessive gaze of our first-person narrator Ali, who enters that Stop & Shop lonely and bored and leaves with a new friend who guides her through an increasingly nightmarish summer. “Justine was the light shining on me and the dark shadow it cast, and I wanted to stand there forever in the relief of that contrast,” Ali muses in that first moment with Justine. Right away, their friendship is a dangerous and seismic thing. Justine renames her, insists that she go by Alison even though Ali isn’t short for anything. Ali finds Justine’s ledger where she meticulously documents her very restricted calorie intake, and she copies it, filling herself with the same exact brand and flavor of yogurt, scraping away at herself to look more like Justine who scrapes away at herself to look more like the models in magazines. Ali sees her own self-hatred mirrored back to her by Justine, and she mistakes that shared experience for a kind of love.
Justine lives inside that old chestnut of queer adolescence: Do I want to be her or be with her? But even that doesn’t fully convey the full magnitude of the contrasts and contradictions inherent in Ali and Justine’s relationship. Ali is caught between adoration and fear. Does she want to consume Justine or be consumed by her? She’s endlessly loyal to Justine, but it doesn’t take much for Justine to turn on her as the summer progresses. Their merge is tenuous, built on the foundation of idolization, which bottoms out easily.
I read Justine in one sitting, because I couldn’t look away from the striking intimacy of this friendship, especially since that intimacy is so consuming and often very bodied (“I wanted to be inside her body, drawing her knees and arms up, pushing them down against the water, propelling myself across the pool’s glittering surface,” says Ali while watching Justine float in the pool). Ali’s adoration of Justine is earnest and huge. It’s sometimes uncomfortable to sit inside it. Ali’s attraction to Justine is palpable even if she lacks the language to name it as exactly that. Harmon brilliantly weaves through the confusing, overwhelming feelings of repressed queerness in these pages.
Reading Harmon’s Justine, it’s hard not to also think about Julie Buntin’s Marlena, a very underrated novel that’s also about one lonely young girl (Cat) becoming infatuated with another wild and beautiful girl (Marlena). In both books, the parents sit sort of at the edge of the narrative but are crucial factors for how the girls see themselves and each other. In both books, looming societal factors heighten their self-hatred and the dangers they’re exposed to. In Marlena, Cat and Marlena’s obsessive friendship is set against a town deeply impacted by the opioid crisis, and the prevalence of drugs in their communities adds a lethal edge to their relationship with each other, their bodies, and the people around them. (While I read them a couple years apart, I highly recommend reading both Justine and Marlena in tandem if you missed Marlena when it first came out. In addition to some of the thematic/narrative similarities, both contain excellent place writing (northern Michigan in Marlena and Long Island in Justine). They’re ultimately distinct books of course, but they are very fascinating to consider in conversation with one another.)
In Justine, that lethal edge is the supermodel obsession of the 90s. Ali and Justine starve themselves to look more like the women who flit across the pages of every single magazine they encounter. “My body was fizz, frothing, effervescent, a can of just-opened Diet Coke,” Ali observes while flipping through pages of Vogue in bed. Their disordered eating, their internalization of impossible and violent beauty ideals—Justine casually mentions to Ali that it’s rumored that Kate Moss had ribs removed to highlight her waist—are a kind of body horror in Justine. Like Cat and Marlena of Buntin’s book, Justine and Ali’s friendship is doomed not entirely by their own doing but because of the world around them. The outside world threatens their safety.
In short, Justine is a tiny book of big feelings. It’s a searing debut for Harmon, whose prose and illustrations are both a captivating mix of spooky and lovely. It’s a quiet horror story in which beauty is a terror and friendship is an undoing of the self. The final line has haunted me long past reading it.