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First Few Pages: The Force of Such Beauty by Barbara Bourland

First Few Pages: The Force of Such Beauty by Barbara Bourland

Caroline, a former marathon runner who dropped out of school at fourteen to pursue an Olympic medal, was the perfect candidate for a tiara: shapely, disciplined, accustomed to public attention, and utterly uneducated.

After she meets Finn, the handsome prince of a small European kingdom, her fate is sealed. With a collar of pearls locked around her throat and a rope of diamonds leashing her to a balcony, Caroline uses her once-powerful body to smile, wave, and produce children with perfect grace.

But once she begins to open her eyes to the world around her—and examine her own reflection—Caroline discovers that she may have entered a bargain that cannot be undone.

Barbara Bourland’s stunning third novel is her most ambitious and most imaginative book to date. Inspired by accounts of real-life princesses who yearned to escape, and set in a grotesque and gaudy prerecession 2000s Europe, The Force of Such Beauty is a heart-wrenching and compulsively readable testament to the way in which real-life power structures around the world ultimately rest on the subjugation of women’s bodies.


THE LAST TIME they caught me at the airport, I panicked.

The decision I’d made an hour earlier, to drive straight there like any regular woman and buy a ticket, was more than reckless; it was unequivocally selfish. In my defense it happened in a moment so opportune that I can still taste it on the sides of my tongue. How was I supposed to resist?

The service were drinking, their collars loose, cigarettes and playing cards between their fingers. I knew where Marie kept the keys to her rusted Peugeot. She was vacuuming upstairs. Everybody thought I was passed out for the night. It was so easy. Really—I almost did it just to see if I could. Is that a good enough explanation? As I was tying my scarf, a gift from his mother, the one with the interlocking Fs, over my prickling scalp—and the plastic of my sunglasses was cold against the tops of my ears—t he hem of my car coat scratched my legs—sweat dripped into my underwear—it was a moment of, there’s no other word for it, possession. I was possessed. I was Sleeping Beauty moving toward the spinning wheel, eyes dilated, holding my breath; I was Linda Blair in a nightgown screaming on the M Street steps. I was every woman who had ever seen a way out, and I grabbed at the moment so desperately that I left my children behind.

I wedged a manila folder into the bottom of my handbag and made it through four courtyards to Marie’s car, parked on gravel, near the stables. I shifted it into gear, feet working the pedals from memory, left hand skimming the door until I found the plastic handle, rolling the window down. I pulled out of the inner driveway, punched in the code at the iron gate—it was agony, watching it open, so slowly, on its own time, doing what its motor always did—and with an inch to spare, I ripped out onto the road, barreling hard on first gear until the engine whined. I found the sweet spot in the clutch and shifted again. The little Peugeot jerked into second, and then third. 

A grin stretched across my face.

Fifteen minutes later I was on the coast road, cutting a diesel streak to the commercial airport. Or rather, I hoped I was, because I hadn’t driven a car in years. It was west, I thought, and so I drove west. When I spotted a sign reading Aeroporto, I jerked the wheel and followed it.

It took forty‑five minutes to get there. I kept the window down the whole time.

Wind blew against my veneers; wet beads of mascara dripped into the hollows below my eyes. My bare legs splayed out beneath my coat. The four remaining hairs on my knee, the ones that refused to submit to the laser, were long, from weeks of growth. I yanked one out—I remember that. But mostly I remember the air: sputtering diesel; the sweet‑ sour scent of Marie’s car from her gardenia perfume and menthol cigarettes, fat Italian ones that she hoarded (how long had it been since I had discovered the smell of something as personal as someone’s else’s uncleaned house or car? years! years!); and the damp, salty smack of the ocean.

I don’t recall much else, besides a vague awareness of the fact that as I drove the sun went down and the headlights had to be turned on. I don’t know if there was traffic; I don’t think there was. I simply drove along the road with everyone else, another animal in the pack, heading northwest. And then I was turning into the parking lot, taking a ticket; pulling onto the ramp; nosing the dirty bumper into a space. I do remember wanting the parking job to look really nice and even. I didn’t want Marie to be worried about her car, or to feel mistreated.

I tucked her keys into the visor and headed for the terminal, passing through the airlock of automatic doors into the cold embrace of the airport. It was the physical embodiment of white noise, a place designed to move you along. In bejeweled lilac mules, I fell into step behind a family. My coat was a blue cotton rimmed with white piping, lined in pine‑colored silk. The scarf was still knotted very tightly around my head, though my wig was falling off in the back. My sunglasses, cream with olive lenses, took up half my face. Naturally, no one else was dressed like this. They had on zip‑away cargo pants and money belts and leggings.

I made it halfway to the counter before they shouted my name.

“Caroline!” a girl’s voice sang. Phone out, eyes wide. “Caroline!” Me. My name.

Other people turned. I saw it forming on their lips. My name, my name, my name.

With that, my caper was over. The world went from black and white—an adventure of my own making—right back to smooth‑motion, full‑color, high‑definition hell.

I died inside.

Caroline, Caroline.

The sound of my name, my name.

I turned right and walked my corpse to the nearest desk. Stared blankly at the logo, a tinny noise ringing in my ears, like there had been an explosion—and there had, I had died, it was the sound of my death—while the desk agent, a polite young woman with thick eyeliner and a patterned hijab, stared back at me.

“Your Serene Highness,” she said, “it is a pleasure to serve you today.”

She did not look me up and down as I would have done if our roles were reversed. Now I realized she must have spotted me long before we spoke, when people called my name as I loped across the cold tile floors, tan legs stretching for miles beneath the short coat, a head taller than everyone else. I opened my mouth to reply and paused instead to breathe. The desk agent said nothing. In this moment, I was supposed to say something, obviously. To explain why I was there, make a plan, move forward. On the departure board Riyadh was the only word I saw.

“Riyadh?” I said, almost a question, asking her permission: Can I go there, now?

“That flight departs in seventy‑five minutes. It’s possible. I will try?” I nodded. “One first‑class ticket to Riyadh, please,” I said, hiding my shaking hands by rooting around in my bag for my credit card and old South African passport. I noticed, as I handed it to her, that the passport would expire in three weeks.

To her eternal credit, she didn’t question the dates and began typing furiously, polished nails pummeling the plastic keyboard in front of her. Etihad, read the sign behind her.

In retrospect, it wasn’t a terrible idea. Saudi Arabia, like everybody else, invested in our real estate; Finn was away with our airplane. Taking a trip to Riyadh on the national airline of the UAE could be a political act, if you squinted. And if I could get on a flight—any flight—I could make it to London, where Zola might help me.

I kept looking around, thinking the service would emerge from the cracks in the walls. They’d corral me like a bull, spear me with knives wrapped in ribbons as I roared in pain. And like a bullfight, everyone would watch and nobody would do a thing about it.

Days before our wedding, they caught me here. I didn’t see it coming that time. I thought I could go home. But they cornered me, swallowed me up. It wasn’t a scene. Things were different then; easy to destroy the security footage, pay off the gate agents. Sure, there was a nasty rumor, but nobody had proof and that was all that mattered.

Today, the service were nowhere to be seen.

“Mmm,” the desk agent uttered, peering at the screen. “You are confirmed on Flight Fifty‑Six. The plane will have a layover in Doha and continue on to Riyadh. It will be most convenient. You do not need to exit the airplane at the layover. I have a very nice suite for you.” I thought she might pick up the phone, but no. She looked at me with expectant satisfaction; she had done something for me, and I was supposed to say yes.

Yes. I nodded and said thank you. I think I did, anyway. If I didn’t: Thank you. Thank you, wherever you are. You were the first person to help me in so long.

She swiped my card; I signed the slip. She did not ask about baggage—another polite gift. The ticket stuttered out of the printer and she handed it to me. I took off my sunglasses and stared up at the security camera. Hello, I mouthed, knowing it would be watched, again and again. Goodbye.

Off I went through security, hands shaking, waiting with every step to be taken aside—but nobody stopped me. Alone for the first time in years, I walked to the gate. After my ticket was scanned, I walked directly onto the plane and was cocooned in a private room. A butler wearing white gloves brought a glass of champagne. He offered to take my coat. As I wasn’t wearing anything beneath it, I shook my head. He opened a compartment and pointed to a pair of silk pajamas folded inside. I nodded, thanked him, and curled up into a ball.

Six hours later, Doha. Another hour, in the air again. Soon we landed in Riyadh. By then the pajamas were beneath my coat, covering my legs. The cashmere blanket from my chair was wrapped around my head, doubled and pinned in place with safety pins from the travel kit. The butler’s white gloves covered my bleeding cuticles.

The round door of the 747 popped open with a depressurizing sigh, and as was customary, I was the first to exit the plane. Three steps into the Jetway and I found myself in the waiting arms of the service. Of course. I knew they would be there. When had they left me alone, ever? Never. They would never. Roland took my passport from my hand, and then my purse, with its folder of purloined paperwork. He held my arm as I walked up the Jetway. Otto and Dix—t hey were always together and looked so haunted, so Germanic—flanked us from the rear. I followed Roland automatically.

It was a relief, in a way. Before that day, I hadn’t been alone in public for seven years. The service were as normal as being dressed. I was, at my core, truly convinced that I’d be harmed if they left my s ide—security will do that to a person, persuade you of their necessity. Especially if you cannot be incognito, which I was clearly incapable of being. I still cannot believe I went to the airport in underpants and a cotton car coat and a goddamned silk scarf with my husband’s family name on it. It was so foolish.
I am such a fool.

***

Seventy‑two hours later, toting a new suitcase stuffed with overpriced luxury goods, a syringe of Ativan coursing through my veins, I returned to the marble prison that held my children, my husband, and me—and then I cried for two days. Jane and Henry (Jeanne and Henri to everyone else) came to my bedside. Their seashell fingernails pressed into my arms, their plump fists wrapped around hanks of my hair, but I did not look up or stop crying. I pushed them away. Go to nanny Lola, I told them. Maman is having a bad day. Maman is sick. You mustn’t see Maman like this.

They went. They always did what they were told.

I was ashamed, and I was heartbroken.

It was the closest I’d come to freedom since before we were married.

The mere proximity to the knife‑edge atoms of independence sliced open my scars, remaking me into a seeping wound.

I lay in bed for two days. I grew infected with sorrow and regret and hatred.

For two days my children cried, and I did not go to them. I was destroyed. I was destruction itself, a specter of their mother, a rotten wraith left in her place.

Yet, I was— finally— on my way to becoming something else.

***

Three mornings after my botched escape, the curtains were drawn. I opened my eyes to the sea, winking and foaming like it always did, under a bright blue sky and a thoughtless yellow sun. Puffy clouds floated across the horizon like nothing was wrong. I yanked the curtains shut.

I started the bath, turning the gold taps to scalding, easing under the shower’s thundering spray. I stayed there, water drumming on my skull until scrubby nubs of dead skin began to flake off, a snake shedding herself. I wrapped myself in yards of towels, then coated every inch of reddened skin in coconut oil, scooping it from a porcelain bowl. I removed the chipped polish from my nails with a linen napkin. Wasteful, of course, but I hated how cotton crumbled in acetone, found it viscerally disgusting. I was accommodated in so many ways, you see; I was precious, I was to be accommodated. When my nails were clean, the stained napkin went into the trash; when my skin was dry to the touch, I abandoned the towels in a heap on the floor. I strolled naked to the red lacquered room where they kept my clothes.

It was more holding area than closet. Thousands of dresses passed through there, encased in thick plastic, to be worn exactly once before being shipped to the archive with a sheaf of notes about what my body had done and said and who it had stood next to while wearing that dress. A pretense at accountability. The clothing that stuck around was more day‑ to‑ day but still absurdly impractical, appropriate only for a life of luxury in this seaside nation. I tucked a white shirt into seer‑ sucker shorts, laced up white cotton tennis shoes. Then I drew a net skullcap over the damp remains of my thinning hair and looked for a wig.

I chose a blond ponytail with heavy bangs. I ran a brush through the ends, my other hand gripping its foam skull, and walked to the window. I pictured myself opening the casement and falling out of it—past the blue cliffs and into the sea, the ponytail still clutched in my fingers. I saw the golden locks washing ashore, tangled, the lacy scalp catching on a rock, coated in blood.

Then I remembered my children.

The foam neck broke in half. I looked down to find it was my own hands that had strangled it into cracking. My own hands that chose everything.

I pinned the wig in place. Blinked mascara, dusted a garish swirl of blush over sunken cheekbones, then opened the door and stepped out into the hall.

The service waited there for me, but they are shadows; they have no depth, I don’t acknowledge them. I swept down the hallway, gliding across the silk carpets, past the floor‑ to‑ ceiling windows dating from 1355 and their heavy draperies, past paintings of other dead women and children, turning to the right and the left and then up some stairs to the playroom where my Jane and Henry spent their days.

The playroom had everything. There was a dollhouse version of the Talon, the prison we lived in, constructed out of the very same marbles, silks, now‑ extinct woods, and so on, with lifelike figurines of the families who’d lived there, including us. There was a zoo‑ quality habitat for a family of bunnies. There were two iguanas, both named Jerome. There was a wall of bookshelves with every children’s series on the market—Five Children and It and Narnia and Redwall and Boxcar Children and Ramona and Fudge and Harry Potter and so on—and a textured globe, mountains raised in relief and rivers glassed in with blue water, that spanned three feet across, dotted with tiny flags to mark the places that Jane and Henry wanted to go. There was a miniature drum kit and a babies’ baby grand piano, and a costume corner where the children could “shop” for Jane‑ and Henry‑ sized commissions from the costumers for the West End production of Wicked.

The playroom had absolutely everything, but at the moment, it didn’t have my children. I texted the nanny: Where are they? She did not reply. I texted Marie, the housekeeper whose car I’d stolen. She did not reply, either. I wondered if she had been fired. I returned to the hallway and asked the service about my children.

“They are not here, signora,” said Otto uncomfortably.

“Where did they go?”

“They are with signore,” he replied. “You must contact him.”

It was no use fighting with Otto. He was made of stone. I pulled out my phone and called Finn, who answered with a chilly “Pronto.”

“Where are my children?” I asked, trying to sound reasonable, and failing.

“We took a trip,” he said simply, choosing not to tell me where. “They’ll be with my mother until you are well again.” He paused, let out a long sigh. “You upset them very much. Henri especially.”

I felt pure shame, a hot burst of it, exactly as he intended. “There’s really no reason to take the children,” I said, but it wasn’t convincing. “Everything is perfectly fine.”

“You’re so selfish,” he whispered. I closed my eyes. “How could you leave them? To go to Saudi Arabia, of all places?”

Because I feel that much hate, I did not say. “What difference does it make?” 

“Why do you talk like that?” he asked, painfully—a rhetorical question I refused to answer.

“You’re so comfortable with the conclusion that our life doesn’t belong to us,” I muttered, the words thick, my tongue numb. Dr. Sun had told us that it was possible to transition into a near vegetative state as a result of depression. Watch her speech patterns, she’d said to my husband, like I wasn’t in the room. Make sure she is awake at least twelve hours a day. Measure her cognitive abilities at least once a week. You don’t want her to atrophy.

Atrophy.

My favorite word: the destruction of a trophy.

“You don’t get to resent this life,” he sighed. “This is how it has always been. It is a gift.”

I tried pleading. “Please don’t take my children.”

“We’re giving you time to get well,” he told me.

“I am well. I’m fine,” I said, but it didn’t sound right. I wasn’t fine and we both knew it.

“I love you, Caro.” It was the first time he’d said he loved me in months—no, years. “I’ll be home tomorrow. I’ll spend tonight with them.”

“I love you, too,” I replied automatically, and then I hung up.

A moment later he sent me a text: Please eat some lunch.

I don’t doubt for a moment that Finn once loved me very much. I’d loved him, too—and I loved my children. I think about the days after Henry stopped crying, when we lay in bed with him and read aloud, Jane sleeping between us in her blue jumper. We drank black coffee and listened to the birds. The room smelled like baby shampoo and sweat, like sour milk and coffee. Is there a greater love available to us? Does God give us more?

The problem is not how much I loved them.

The problem is that I loved them at all.

There were days when I, too, thought all of this was a gift. When he gave me a yellow diamond ring and sailed me into this port; when I crossed a green velvet carpet toward a decrepit priest, ready to wrap us in the bounding lines of matrimony; when he locked a collar of pearls around my neck, led me down a balustrade like a dog on a leash, and we waved to ten thousand people; even when he shut the door on me for the first time; still, throughout all of it, this had looked like a gift. This life had looked so special. I would have done anything to keep it.

Now?

Now I would do anything—anything—to leave.

Excerpted from The Force of Such Beauty by Barbara Bourland. Copyright © 2022 by Barbara Bourland. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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