The treatment of female celebrities in the first decade of the century has been subject to much dissection – those who spent their teens watching it through the lenses of the paparazzi and the women’s magazine have come of age, and those who suffered in the camera’s glare, most notably Britney Spears, continue to suffer. So despite being set in 2008, Other People’s Clothes, the debut novel from Berlin-based American artist and writer Calla Henkel, feels timely.
The book beams us back to an era when Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton et al ruled the headlines and social media was in its babyhood. It follows Zoe and Hailey, two American art students on a year abroad in Berlin who sublet a palatial flat from Beatrice, the author of bestselling potboilers, and suspect that she is spying on them as fodder for her next novel. And so they begin to perform, putting on huge, flamboyant parties, their life becoming, essentially, an art installation mediated through the gaze of Facebook. Such a premise could be ponderous and pretentious but isn’t at all, because there’s murder: this is a very good plot-driven thriller dressed in a glittery jumpsuit. The story is multilayered, touching on sex, female friendship, queerness, Berlin nightlife, drugs, celebrity culture and art in ways that in less confident hands could easily have become a mess.
Instead, there’s an exuberance to this novel that makes it highly lovable. Its drunken hedonism reminded me of Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, or the falling-apart heroines of Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding and Fleabag. There’s a touch of The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy here, too, in its screwball approach to Americans abroad. And like that beloved book, it’s very funny. From being rejected by the doorman at Berghain twice in one night to trying to Skype in a jazz bar (“He took each botched Skype personally – fuming as if I had paid the four-piece band to launch into a creaky version of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ while he was talking about his stepdad’s benign tumour”), via art bros and pretentious men (“he only collects experiences, and hand-blown glass”), there are laugh-out-loud lines throughout, and Henkel’s turn of phrase adds beauty to the mundane: “I ate a döner in the street, bits of meat falling like hail.”
With so much going on, the murder strand of the plot could end up as little more than corsetry, but instead it keeps you hooked, keeping the novel’s more profound questions about the intersection of art and life, and the cannibalisation of human experience for fiction, from becoming pompous. It’s a whirlwind that leaves you slightly hungover, with the lingering feeling that Henkel has pulled off something very clever, while making it look easy. Which it isn’t, at all.
• Other People’s Clothes is published by Hodder (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.