I wasn't eager to read the Marquis de Sade, and Justine fully lived up to its reputation for cruelty and wholesale sexual perversion. As Justine flees around France, escaping from one deadly danger only to find herself embroiled in a bigger one, I recoiled. Here she meets the wealthy necrophiliac noble who marries only to slowly drain his young wife of her life's blood; there she encounters an entire monastery of monks who kidnap girls in order to violate, torture, kill and bury them. And yet I was turning the pages. And yet there was a compelling energy to the narrative, and it had nothing to do with sadism.
It had to do with Justine herself, who always summons the strength to get away, always summons the resilience to question her fate and argue with the men when they justify tormenting her. It may be that for De Sade, Justine's journey was primarily an excuse to catalog ways of enjoying doing harm, but for me, it turned into a wholesale exposure of how women and girls were exploited then and are exploited nowand exposure is the first step to redress. I found Justine a strange and invigorating read that I would not have wanted to miss.
Smiley's most recent book is Ten Days in the Hills.
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