BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Another, not-quite-as-dark release is JUSTINE, by the Danish novelist, Iben Mondrup (translated by Kerri A. Pierce). A graduate of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Mondrup is well-equipped to write about the Danish art world, something she does with a wicked and irreverent edge..

Justine is a student at the art academy. A performance artist, she is prepping for her first major show when her world falls apart. First her house, a landmark structure built by her painter grandfather, burns down with all her work in it. Then she gets dumped by her sculptor girlfriend, Vita.

Justine goes into a physical and emotional tailspin which she tries to escape by binging on beer and “wolf sex.” She does manage to attend a few museum and school exhibitions, notably one at which her teacher makes insulting remarks about female artists, then tries to seduce her.

Greenland (where the author grew up) figures significantly in the story, notably when Justine shoots “a Greenlandic drum dance and some singing, five minutes of it,” then later screens the video “in a white room with three tubs of fish. It was impossible to watch the video without feeling sick.”

Justine’s fondness for this kind of underground art–if it is art, she wonders–permeates the narrative. Her fellow-students might be an angry, hard-drinking, rebellious bunch–several of them take part in a violent demonstration “against anything and everything”–but she backs them to the hilt. They in turn, especially her friend Ane, do all they can to help her weather her crises and get back her groove again.

JUSTINE is a long way from being a great novel, but it does have much to commend: a lively, cheeky prose style; some bawdy and lusty sex scenes; and, above all, a blackly comic view of Denmark’s welfare society.

(Open Letter)