"The style in which my flat is decorated gives everything away about me." The unnamed narrator of Justine tells us in the novel's very first sentence that he puts faith in appearances, and he values beauty above all things. So did his mother, who has just killed herself in despair as the first ravages of age have marked her face. At his mother's funeral the narrator briefly encounters a stunningly beautiful woman named Justine. Her aloof and secretive manner adds to his instant fascination, and he becomes obsessed with Justine, longing to possess her, haunting the streets of London looking for her.
By chance he comes upon this mysterious woman in an art gallery, only her demeanor is somehow different: careless, outgoing, and unfashionable. She soon tells him that her name is Juliette, and he has mistaken her for her twin sister Justine. He sets about seducing Juliette as a way to get to Justine.
Justine and Juliette are archetypal characters from the novels of the same names by the Marquis de Sade. Sade's Justine is virtuous, virginal (or at least she tries to be), and vulnerable. His Juliette, her sister, is lustful, amoral and predatory. Similarly the two sisters in the modern novel are mirror images, as different in personality as they are alike in physical appearance. Or so, at least, our narrator fantasizes.
The two elusive women haunt the narrator, in his dreams and opium-fueled hallucinations as well as in reality. His obsessive desire for Justine drives him through days of despair to violent and desperate acts. Eventually neither he nor the reader knows what is real and what is not, and he becomes a prisoner of his own delusions.
"All along, I had assumed that I had been bringing her into my world, so that I could put her in a glass case, a private exhibition of her that I could let out at my delectation to taste her sweet flesh," he writes. "I had been tricked by the beautiful object that I had sought to possess. She had had her own thoughts and desires that had manipulated me."
Justine later asserts, "I did nothing but present my image to you. Your obsession decided on a reality of its own. And ignored mine."
This is a Pygmalion story where a feminist Galatea refuses to be sculpted, and instead reshapes the sculptor. It is a gripping tale of suspense that combines the gothic, the erotic and the surreal. Justine won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1996.