The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

A review by Nalini Haynes

Camellia Beauregard is one of the Belles; she was born with colour in Orleans, a magical archipelago where the God of the Sky cursed the people because the Goddess of Beauty loved them more than he. The God of the Sky turned the people all gray with red eyes; Belles have magic to give the people different colours, to change their shapes and their hair types.

This world seems part France in the lead up to the revolution in style, and part Japanese in that the Belles preside over tea houses run by madams: they seem like Geishas except they give beauty treatments instead of pandering to male egos.

When the Belles are presented to court on their 16th birthday — seven girls turn 16 on the same day — they compete for the Queen’s favour. The Favourite attends the court while the others are assigned tea houses, and one returns to the Maison where they grew up and were trained. All seven consider themselves sisters and they all compete, all wanting to be the favourite more than anything.

Amber is chosen, devastating Camellia. Camellia is assigned the nearby tea house, where daytime management of her every minute and nighttime happenings make her suspicious. All is not as it appears.

If judging The Belles by its cover and blurb, the reader may assume this is yet another young adult Cinderella tale. I nearly passed it over but, after starting to read, I rapidly became enamoured of this novel, its magical world, the characters, some of whom are not as shallow as they first appear, and the mystery afoot. I’m the kind of Fashion Philistine who generally abhors fashion-focused books and who, if I hadn’t seen the movie first, would never have read The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham. The Belles is somewhat like The Dressmaker in that it is subversive, challenging norms and readers’ expectations alike; The Belles raises awareness of commodification of women’s bodies and the detrimental lengths people go through to look ‘beautiful’. The economic benefits and costs of the beauty and fashion industries are raised; I almost expect the environmental costs to be mentioned later in the story. And yet there is an undeniable element of romance that will appeal to those who love traditional YA novels.

My only concern regarding The Belles is the default ‘grey with red eyes’. At first the text says the ‘grey’ is the colour of the sky with no sun, so I visualised very pale people, ‘albino-types’. Later it seemed that the grey may have been a stronger colour because it ‘shows through’. I guess we’ll have to wait for the movie adaptation to judge. However, the red eyes still concerns me because red eyes are linked in popular culture to albinism. Some (a very few) people with albinism have pink or red eyes. A friend of mine is so pale her eyes are violet. When I was a child, my peers in a public non-religious school linked red eyes to being evil and demonic. They said I had red eyes because ‘photos do not lie’ and flash photography showed my eyes as unusually red: light passes through my irises as well as my pupils, making my ‘red eye’ potentially larger than others’. The Belles does not link red eyes to being evil — yay — but does link red eyes to being ugly and undesirable.

Clayton has embraced the diversity of the human race — colour, shape, size, hair texture — within her definitions of beauty. The only omissions are people with disabilities. I love that Clayton has included African Americans, Chinese, European, every nationality on Earth within her definition of beauty but I’m saddened by disabled exclusion and the possible linking of albinism — albeit circuitously — to ugliness.

I highly recommend The Belles for its relatable teenage characters, romance and mystery but especially for its subversion of the fashion and beauty industries. This book is excellent material for classroom discussion and for book groups including readers of all ages. The Belles leaves the reader wanting the sequel, STAT!

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars
ISBN: 9781473223967
Imprint: Gollancz (Hachette)
Format: paperback, 434 pages (also available in ebook)

The Belles - an African American beauty looks over her shoulder towards the reader