We are thrilled to welcome Dhonielle Clayton to the Gollancz Blog. Today, Dhonielle shares with us the inspiration behind her new novel The Belles as well as an exciting extract. The Belles will be available in shops and online on the 8th February 2018. You can pre-order your copy here.
I started The Belles eight years ago, but it’s a story that’s been living inside me since I was about twelve years old; long before I had dreams of being a writer.
When I was a pimply, puffy-haired preteen, I overheard a conversation at my local suburban mall between several men about their respective girlfriends. With the use of popular magazines, they discussed how much better their girlfriends would look if they had longer and leaner legs, bigger breasts, different hair textures, softer skin.
This conversation broke something deep down inside of me and in that fissure, grew a monster.
I started to obsessively check out magazines from the public library, and I spent hours poring over their pages, dissecting the images, studying the women photographed, and trying out all the hair, makeup and weight loss tips listed. I wanted to be as beautiful as the women chosen to be in those magazines. But as the acne continued to flare and my discomfort with myself grew, it took a darker turn.
I have a little secret room inside my childhood bedroom. If you go in my closet and push back the clothes, there’s a tiny door made perfect for a hobbit; a reading nook built by my bookworm parents to help foster my love of reading. I used that little space to explore all these thoughts I was having about bodies and beauty. I cut out pictures of women I thought men would consider beautiful, and pasted them on the walls of this little reading nook: legs, breasts, torsos, eyes, hair textures, skin tones, hairstyles, feet, and more.
The world of Orléans is a place where you can change yourself down to your bones – your skin colour, your hair colour, your hair texture, your body shape, your facial structure. This book is my place to work out my preteen obsession, and let’s face it, one my adult self still grapples with: What would I do if I could change myself completely? How far would I go? How ugly could it get, and why? Is there a way to be the most beautiful person in the world?
I hope The Belles opens a conversation about the messages we send girls and boys about women’s body parts and the value assigned to them. I hope it helps to build a generation of readers that question the media and the images it creates about our bodies.
I haven’t been inside that little room since I graduated high school in 2001. I’m afraid to encounter the monster I left behind in there. But maybe this book will help readers interrogate the monsters that live inside us all.
We turned sixteen today, and for any normal girl that would mean raspberry and lemon macarons and tiny pastel blimps and pink champagne and card games. Maybe even a teacup elephant.
But not for us. Today is our debut. There are only six of us this year.
My fingertips leave fog teardrops on the paper-thin glass walls. The carriage is beautiful and clear and fashioned into a ball. I am a delicate doll poised inside a snow globe. An adoring audience sur- rounds my carriage, eager to see what I look like, and what I can do. A net made of my signature pink flowers stretches along the glass curves in order to tell everyone my name—Camellia—and to hide me until I’m revealed to the royal court.
I am the last in line.
My heart races with excited nervousness as we snake through the crowds in the Royal Square for the Beauté Carnaval. The festival happens once every three years. I peer through the tiny spaces between the petals with a pair of eyescopes, and try to soak in my first glances of the world, wanting to fold up each bit and tuck it into the cerise layers of my dress.
It’s a wonderland of palace buildings with golden turrets and glittering arches, fountains full of crimson and ivory fish, topi- ary mazes of clipped trees, shrubs, and bushes in every possible geometric shape. Imperial canals circle the square, holding jew- eled boats bright as gemstones and shaped like smiling moons on midnight-blue water. They spill over with passengers eager to watch us. The royal hourglass that measures the length of day and night churns with sand the color of white diamonds.
The sky and its clouds are made of melting cherries and flaming oranges and burnt grapefruit as the sun sinks into the sea. The dying sunlight flashes my own reflection on the glass. My powdered skin makes me look like an overly frosted piece of caramel cake.
I’ve never seen anything like it before. This is the first time I’ve visited the imperial island, the first time I’ve ever left home.
The Orléans archipelago is a string of islands stretching like a rose with a crooked stem out into the warm sea. Most of them are connected by golden bridges or can be reached by lavish river coaches. We came from the very top—the bloom—and we’ve made a long journey to the heart of the stem to display our talents.
A breeze pushes its way through tiny breathing holes in the glass carriage, carrying with it the scent of the sky. Salty rain, spiced clouds, and a hint of sweetness from the stars. It all feels like a dream that’s held on and lingered past the dawn. I never want it to end. I never want to return home. One minute here is richer than a thousand moments there.
The end of the warm months brings change, Maman always said.
And my life is bound to transform tonight.
The horses tug us forward, their hooves clip-clopping against the cobblestoned square. Vendors are selling sweets in our honor: small mountains of shaved ice topped with strawberries the color of our lips; intricate little teacakes shaped like our signature flow- ers; sweet puffs molded like our Belle-buns; colorful strings of sugar pinwheeled around sticks to mirror our traditional waist- sashes and dresses.
A hand thumps my carriage and I catch a sliver of a face. The square is overflowing with bodies. There are so many of them. Hundreds, thousands, maybe millions. Imperial guards push the crowd back to give our procession space to pass. All the people seem beautiful, with skin in various colors, from fresh cream to a drizzle of honey to a square of chocolate; their hair is in blond waves or brunette curls or raven coils; body shapes are petite, round, or somewhere in between. They’ve all paid to look this way.
The men wear jackets and top hats and cravats in a prism of colors. Some have hair growing on their faces in neat patterns. They stand beside women adorned with jewels and draped in lux- urious, pastel-colored dresses made full with crinoline and tulle. Intricate hats cover the ladies’ hair; some clutch dainty parasols and oilpaper umbrellas, or cool themselves with patterned fans. From the blimps above, I bet they resemble candies in a box.
I recognize the more popular looks from the stacks of gossip tattlers left in the mail chest a day too long, or from the weekly beauty-scopes Du Barry’s daughter, Elisabeth, sometimes dropped between the velvet cushions of the parlor-room couch. The Orléans Press says strawberry blond hair and jade eyes are the new windy- season trend. All the newspaper headlines read: awaken love . . . look irresistible with strawberry and jade fill your toilette box with belle-approved rhubarb hair powder a complexion of lilies and belle-rose lips— this season’s colors of beauty
The newsies say that’s what everyone will want in the coming months.
Coins jingle. Hands wave velvet pouches in the air. The spintria inside creates a tinkling melody. How much does each pouch hold? How many treatments can they afford to purchase? How much are they willing to pay?
I adjust the eyescope lens, zooming in on excited onlookers, noticing how some of their skin tones have faded, like paintings that have faced the sun too long; how their hair is graying at the roots, and age-lines are creasing several brows.
It’s a reminder of why I’m here. I am a Belle.
I control beauty.
© Dhonielle Clayton, The Belles, 2018