Forsyth Harmon’s “Justine” Is a Haunting Book About Intense Teenage Friendship

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.


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Kayla

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Miami. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 323 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. A fewyear old but still good. It was even made it a movie, didntknow “respire/breathe” Or “breathe” For the e -book

    Breathe is the confession of nineteen-year-old Charlene Boher. From her prison cell, Charlene recounts her lonely adolescence. Growing up shy and unpopular, Charlene never had many friends. That is, until she meet Sarah, a beautiful and charismatic American-French girl who moved back to Paris for high school. Much to Charlene’s shock and delight, the two girls quickly develop an intense friendship. With Sarah by her side, Charlene finally begins to feel accepted and even loved.

    However, after a brief idyllic period, the girls’ relationship becomes rocky and friendship veers towards obsession. As Sarah drops Charlene for older, more glamorous friends, Charlene’s devotion spirals into hatred. Unfolding slowly and eerily towards a shocking conclusion, Anne-Sophie Brasme’s Breathe is an intense, convincing portrait of a possessive and ambiguous friendship.

    Press voices

    “Brasme’s potent debut spirals through the teenage psyche like the faultlines before a quake, featuring a heroine who could be Camus’ sinister little sister.”
    – Caroline Leavitt, author of Girls In Trouble

    “Breathe fuses gothic angst with something more sinisterly existenial…A short, dark account of the hothouse atmosphere of tortured adolescence and overheated relationships.”
    – Metro, UK

    “Author Anne-Sophie Brasme is set to cause a stir with her debut novel, Breathe, about an unrepentant teen murderer.”
    – British Vogue

    Rrading excert with permission of the rights owner.
    Prologue

    A cold and colourless shadow slides in from the night. It moves along the central corridor before creeping under the metal doors and into this little space enclosed by the cell walls. The same opacity comes to visit us each night, loyal, inalterable. Behind the electric wires that line the yard, we spend our hours watching the endless void that envelopes the world, but we never see any signs to tell us how far advanced the night is.

    The heavy, echoing tread of departing warders marks the start of our night. After midnight no sound will trouble the silence. Solitude and alienation take hold of us. No one sleeps.

    It is impossible in this place. This was one of the first things I learned when I arrived. We turn tirelessly on our mattresses, we snore, we cough or we try talking out loud, but nothing we do can break the isolation of our insomniac nights.

    Some of the women cry. In the first weeks their tears are cries of revolt and of hatred. They express feelings of injustice and of sorrow. As the months and years go by the tears learn to be quiet. But they are still there, anchored in silence, and time will never wipe them away.

    Some of the women seem never to have known emotion. But at night they pray. They appear insentient when they’re silent, but in the dark they look up at the sky and speak to it in their secret language.

    Others dream while they lie awake. Their families, their hopes, the tender indolence of their former lives, these things come to haunt them, as though to ease the agony of their wait. Sometimes they pretend they’ve forgotten that they’re going to be shut away here for so many more years.

    But I know that there’s not one among us who will have the strength to fall asleep. Even I have tried and, despite all the will in the world, I cannot.

    Silence is our therapy. It teaches us to look at the past, to face up to what we’ve done, to fight the mistakes we’ve made. It teaches us to reflect, it makes us question, it guides us. It can soothe our anguish or heighten it, it brings us out of incertitude or plunges us into folly. It tames us, kills the weight of the hours, fights against the selves we would rather forget.

    Until the warders’ steps, creaking through the corridor, tell us that a new day has begun. In reality it is the same day.

    This is how nights are here, behind the bars of our detention.

    CHAPTER ONE
    Forgetting

    I’d forgotten. The joy, the shamelessness, the indolence, the smells, the silences and the dizziness, the images, the colours and the sounds, their faces, the tone of their voices, their absence and their smiles, the laughter and the tears, the happiness and the impertinence, the disdain and the need for love, the taste of the first years of my life. But the past suddenly resurfaces in the depth of this darkness-soaked cell, in the chill of solitude. It confesses, at length, painfully. To counter, perhaps, the emptiness of the present. Like botched photos with blurred movements, images shatter in my memory. The truth is that I had forgotten nothing, but until now had not deigned to remember. My life might have been normal. If I’d chosen, I might’ve been able to live like any of you. But perhaps it wasn’t really my fault: at a certain moment someone got the better of me and I was no longer master of my actions. Perhaps. I don’t know.

    My existence appeared flat and insignificant. I lived in a world that did not see me, that I didn’t understand. I existed because I had been made to exist. That’s how it was. I should be glad to be alive, simply to be there. I was, after all, a child like any other. I lived without wondering why, I took what was given me, I asked for nothing. Yet what happened to me was inevitable. It’s a well-known fact that the craziest people are those who at first sight look entirely normal. Obsession is smart: it targets those anonymous faces who look as though they haven’t the slightest worry. That’s what happened to me. Nothing today links me to the carefree, spirited child I was. Today, I have two identities and recognise neither.

    One day someone asked me, was I sorry? I didn’t reply. Maybe I was ashamed, not of what I’d done, but of what I’d felt. Surely I should have felt inhuman. I was inhuman, there’s no denying it. But less for committing a crime than for not feeling regret.

    My name is Charlene Boher and I’m nineteen years old. I’ve been stuck here nearly two years now, watching the same day go by. I was barely out of childhood when I committed the irreparable. On the night of 7 September, two years ago, I killed. I admit it. Besides, I’ve told the police everything. I was, as some would have it, `totally lacking in maturity for a girl of sixteen’. But I didn’t act on some wild impulse. I knew exactly what I was doing, I’d planned every detail, I was aware of the consequences. People might well despise me, they may look at me with hatred in their eyes, but I regret nothing, do you hear, not a single aspect of the events that destroyed my life. Sinking into madness is not necessarily fate, it can be a choice.

    No doubt I chose not to have to look at the mistakes of the past. I fled out of cowardice, propelled by my refusal to answer the whys and the wherefores of my life, by hatred of myself. I was afraid. I feared pain, I feared truth, I feared remorse. I was afraid of having been blind and suddenly having to open my eyes. In short, I feared regret.

    So I decided to write.

    To transcribe my life, my almost banal past. My story began in the most deceptive innocence. I make myself piece together my memories because I realise they reveal signs of an obsession that would become incurable. I make myself remember because I need to talk.

    Modesty, violence, anger make me want to talk. Pain, too. You write like you kill. It comes from the belly and all of a sudden it’s in your throat. It’s a cry of despair.

    Copyright (c) 2004 by Anne-Sophie Brasme

    Anne-Sophie Brasme was born in 1984. She lives in Paris and Breathe is her first novel.

  2. I was really anticipating this book and it exceeded all of my expectations! It’s so good and yes, that final line…

    Kayla, I hadn’t made the connection between this book and Marlena, but yes, they really feel in conversation together. Thank you for that.

    Also just want to give a shout out to Forsyth Harmon’s illustrations in Melissa Febos’s Girlhood – they are so good! And what a collaboration!

    Anyway, great book, great review! Thank you for this!

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