Book review: West Girls, Laura Elizabeth Woollett

Sharp and clever, West Girls dives into the murky world of modelling.

West Girls is Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s fourth novel. Sharp and clever, it leaves bite marks in the skin. Set partly in Perth, the narrative follows Luna Lewis, a Maltese-Australian teen who uses her racial ambiguity as a ticket into international modelling. Exoticising herself as Luna Lu, her act of appropriation propels her into a dreamy world of glamour – but her artifice comes with a price.

Luna’s Indonesian stepmother, Indah, and her extended family, broach Luna’s racial reinvention with “hilarity”, finding her adoption of ‘a Chinese name to move up in the world’ ironic, in the fact that it graces her with upward social mobility.

Eventually – although without remorse for her appropriative actions – Luna is doomed to the same fate as other female characters in West Girls – that of the gradual realisation that beauty is not a stable asset in which to invest oneself.

An obsession with self-worth built through the commodification of beauty standards pervades the novel. The currency of beauty – possessing it, expressing it, retaining it – becomes a motif throughout the book. Luna is forever performing her desirability, even at the expense of her grades and interpersonal relationships. At school, before her modelling career begins, she leans with her ‘pelvis out and tummy in’ against a tree, and tells the reader that ‘since learning I was beautiful, I often struck poses, like I expected model scouts to pop out of the bushes, contracts at the ready’. Luna is drawn into a cyclical culture of longing, uncertainty and release – emotions that saturate the pages of the text.

Women are bound together in West Girls, through their shared status as subjects under the male gaze. Yet they are also forced into competition with one another – a push-pull dance between sour loathing and anxious desire. These structures of internalised misogyny work to ensure that the women Woollett writes about become ‘capable of hurting’ one another in ‘far more inventive ways’ than men can hurt them.

Caught within this frame, the female characters in West Girls move between delight at the ways they can leverage their attractiveness for social gain, and dread at the inevitable – and, in the eyes of society, horrifying – effects of ageing.

West Girls is composed of fragmented short stories, which together build to form the novel’s arc. Moving fluidly between third- and first-person narration, these vignettes are expressive of the interconnectivity in which the narrative deals.

The collage that forms from these shards of fiction considers the ways in which femininity is constructed through interrelationality, and the effects of the marketability of beauty upon the socioeconomics of Western Australia, and beyond.

Read: Book review: Storytellers, Leigh Sales

West Girls explores the agitation of the notion of fixed, stable identities. Woollett examines what it means when culture, race, and aesthetic and sexual worth become disturbed from their moorings. Woollett’s work is a consideration of the ways in which privilege and prerogative converge. The question of exploitation – and the repeated query of the orientation of this use of power – lies at the heart of the novel.

West Girls, Laura Elizabeth Woollett
Publisher: Scribe Publications
ISBN: 9781922585905
Pages: 256pp
Publication Date: 1 August 2023
RRP: $32.99

Ellie Fisher is a writer. Her creative work has appeared in Westerly Magazine, Swim Meet Lit Mag, Devotion Zine, and Pulch Mag, amongst others. Ellie is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia. She splits her time between Kinjarling and Boorloo.