Judith & Appearance

Woman wearing a scarf. Free image via Unsplash.

After reading the prologue of Maestra, a novel by LS Hilton, I thought that the story would be about this supreme dominatrix. And I must admit I got a tiny bit titillated.

Now sex is a huge part of the novel and Hilton doesn't spare us the gory details. It actually reminds me of Garth Greenwell, who, in an interview said that one his goals was to quote, "[write] a scene that was, at once, one hundred percent pornographic and one hundred percent high art", unquote. I think Hilton did it in Maestra. I'm not sure about one hundred percent on both accounts but I got, like I said titillated by the sex scenes and the novel also has depth to it.

The main character is Judith, she is from London. What's interesting about her and her portrayal is that we don't get a description of her. This is a good test of physical stereotypes. She's from an England, so naturally I imagine her as being white. She loves and is extremely knowledgeable about fashion. So she wears all these branded clothes, and immediately what comes to mind is a supermodel body. Tall and lean.

I noted this lack of physical description on the main character because except for her clothes and accessories, it's all up to us to conjure her image. Another reason that I brought this up is that Judith is very good at describing other people. Not just describing but reading them.

I actually love how politically incorrect she is. She is super funny, but she cuts through the heart of the matter. Here's a passage describing a group of men and women in their late 20s, same age as Judith. She and her friend, Leanne were on a trip to Italy. Listen to her observation:

The girls were not strictly beautiful, but they had that show-pony sheen that comes from generations of confident money, long legs and narrow ankles, glossy hair, perfect teeth, no makeup. One wore what was obviously her boyfriend's shirt over ther bikini top, a monogram discreetly visible in the linen folds; the other was in an embroidered white tunic, with just a pair of green suede Manolo sandals, flat and rather scuffed, that I knew would have cost a least five hundred euro. I was embarrassed that I noticed that, because of course, a girl like her never would. The men were identikit, thick dark hair falling to their collars, broad-shouldered and slim, as though they had never done anything but ski and swim and play tennis, which they probably hadn't. They were — effortless, I decided. Compared with Leanne and myself in our fussy Riviera finery, they had an air of belonging that no amount of epensive shopping could ever produce. This is what properly rich people looked like, I thought, like they would never, ever have to try.
So more than sex, fashion and appearance is a huge theme in the novel. It is a crime novel, by the way. I don't know how to categorize it. She is a killer, Judith. I don't think that's a spoiler. I would also say that it's character-driven, but we can maybe critique her development and motivation to kill. Personally I don't think it was very convincing how she turned from this disappointment employee/assistant at an art house to this serial killer. But this episode is not going to delve into that. I'm more interested in the novel's statement on how we present ourselves. How our outside influences our inside.

Judith enjoys putting on clothes as much as she enjoys stripping. I said I was looking for a stronger reason why she was blood-thirsty, but when it came to sex, she explicitly said, through a dialogue, that we should stop looking for a deeper reason why people enjoy sex, particularly in an unconventional manner. On the side, aside from her day job, she also earns money as an escort of sort, or she would sell herself for cash when needed. And she also went to sex parties just for the heck of it. Because it was fun for her.

This was her response to a guy who asked why she does what she does when it came to sex: "What, do you need me to be traumatized? Do you want some sob story about filthy work-callused hands on my dainty prepubescent thighs? Oh, God. I like fucking, okay? I like fucking. End of. Now take me home to bed."

In those words, I have reason to believe that author LS Hilton took the liberty to use Judith to amplify her own ideals. My copy of the book has a short interview at the end and Hilton addressed this. She noted that apparently there are some set rules about what women can and can't do in fiction. For example, I'm quoting her, she said, "sexual liberation is often 'permitted' only as a correlative of trauma. I was also surprised by the fact that while crime fiction frequently perpetrates the most apalling horror on women's bodies, a woman who unapologetically enjoys her own physicality is seen as transgressive." She also added that "women in fiction are constricted by a perceived need for emotional reaction: no one ever asks James Bond how he feels about anything!"

True. But I still need that motivation for killing. I think it's fair to say that killing is a transgressive act for any and all genders.

Hilton was also asked about how much Judith values fashion. And I agree that Judith used clothes for different functions, most importantly as a disguise and, in the authors words, as "the projection of a future self". This for me is a lesson, well not exactly a lesson, but this awareness of how clothes can really be our second skin, is something I wish was I had learned when I was younger.

I hope we were taught at an early age about this. I hope there was a theory-type subject in school on dressing up!

For her attitude towards clothes, Judith could well be my hero. Through her character I am reminded that my self extends to my attire. She doesn't make me want to go on a shopping spree, rather she inspires to be more deliberate in what I put on and in what layers I decide to reveal and to whom.


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