Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Ornatrix - a sadistic gem

Hey, commies!
On occasion, I stumble across a novel that challenges my boundaries (and I have a pretty high pain threshold when it comes to cruelty and depravity in literature and film). You do not need to have any cosmetic flaws or suffer from a body dysmorphic disorder to cringe through Kate Howard's novel The Ornatrix. It's a very graphic and lush study of human depravity and the distorted value system where a woman affected by a birth defect becomes an outcast. I wish I could say the world has changed for the better, but it hasn't. So, if you have a strong stomach, please get your copy.

Cursed from birth by the bird-shaped blemish across her face, Flavia spends much of her life hidden from the outside world. Lonely and alienated even from her family, she sabotages her sister’s wedding in a fit of jealous rage and is exiled to serve in the convent of Santa Giuliana. Soon she finds that another exile dwells in the convent: a former Venetian courtesan named Ghostanza whose ostentatious appearance clashes with the otherwise austere convent and sparks gossip throughout the town. When Ghostanza claims Flavia as her ornatrix―her personal hairdresser and handmaid―Flavia is pulled into a world of glamor and concealment where admiration is everything and perfection is the ultimate, elusive goal. And she soon finds that with beauty in her grasp, in the form of the poisonous but stunning white lead cerussa, Flavia will do anything to leave her marked face behind.

My thoughts:
I am the first one to say how much I hate artificial feel-good "redemption" stories with a fake sort-of-happy ending slapped on. I value dark humor, sarcasm, even sadism, but this novel challenged my boundaries. It reminded me of this indie movie "Welcome to the Doll House" from the 1990s, featuring an unattractive girl who gets bullied by the whole world, from her classmates to her own parents. It ends on a very dour note. The girl does NOT turn into a beautiful princess after being kissed by a noble prince who sees beyond her homely exterior. And she does not even get her revenge on the popular girls. She ends up in the same underdog position in which she started. Sitting through that movie was like watching a wounded puppy getting kicked time after time. And that's the feelings I got from this novel. It's very hard to read for someone who has been through bullying and heard disparaging remarks about one's appearance. The world is not very kind to women who are not attractive, and this novel reiterates it time after time. Yes, you're ugly. It sucks to be you. I could tell that the author herself has a chip on her shoulder. Still trying to figure out what her position is, and how much of her own experience she put into the plot development or whose side she is on. I cannot tell if she is a pretty girl who enjoys humiliating an ugly girl, or if she is an ugly girl reveling in her plight. Either way, the novel has a few very disturbing episodes featuring some of the most twisted acts of depravity one can think of.

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