Justine Bo

(Grasset, 288 pages, 2019)


Nour has always had a bad reputation. Growing up in a working-class environment as a young girl of color, with no connection to or knowledge of her mother’s identity, she feels like a burden to others, living paycheck to paycheck, and relying financially on friends and the state. Though her interactions with them are few, she struggles to find her place among the intrusive, judgmental members of Bellevue in Cerbère: Simone, her—trying to be—helpful but mostly alcoholic neighbor; her father’s friends, Warhead and Shell Skull; Jonas, the sweet, limping embalmer; and Ulysse, an eccentric rich boy who visits her at work almost every day and writes poems to her. But masturbation is the only outlet she finds to feel some sense of control over her life.

As France celebrates its victory in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, twenty-year-old Nour goes to work at the McDonald’s off the highway. Like every other day, she drives to a bunker on the beach during her break, the only place where she can masturbate in peace. Only this time, she finds a gun, and resolves to turn it in. On her way to the station, she stops by her apartment, and finds her father dead in his bed, leaving her orphaned and lost in the world. She promises herself that she will return the gun eventually, but she never does. From that moment on, Nour’s life is dominated by a series of unfortunate events that push her to her breaking point.

With each conversation and interaction with her community, each judgment passed or imposition pressed upon her, she becomes edgier, feeling the weight of other people’s expectations. She dreams of escaping her neighborhood, Bellevue, of being able to live in a place where she doesn’t have to fit in a role not made for her. She dreams of being in control. Obsessed with the gun and the feeling of empowerment it gives her, Nour refuses to hand it over. But a gun is not a toy—a lesson Nour learns when she accidentally pulls the trigger one day in her apartment and provokes a surge of fear and hatred in those around her.

Justine Bo writes as she feels the world, darkly and crudely. In Onanism, Bo takes a critical look at a society where xenophobia is the norm, and immigration is conflated with terrorism. She satirizes the media that only report a story which sticks to the narratives that suit them and perpetuate stereotypes that fit their purpose. Onanism contrasts many of today’s youth’s feelings of inadequacy with the former generations’ desires and ideas of success, with their loss of perspective and control over their lives, their need to speak for themselves without being judged.

Justine Bo is a filmmaker and writer. Onanism is her fifth novel.