My Beauty by Rowena Macdonald
Galley Beggar Press, 2013
In My Beauty, when Danuta catches the attention of millionaire Sven and escapes her troubles as a farm worker, she discovers dueling layers to her new upper-class lifestyle. On the surface, everything is beautiful, rich, clean. Viewed from the warm, comfortable farmhouse, snow “swathe[s] the farm in luxurious folds.” To her former co-workers snow means little more than a cold, wet bother, but from her new perspective, Danuta sees “snowflakes twice the size of kroner coins,” that make the farm “rich in snow.”
Luxury comes with its own vernacular. The finished furs that make Sven his fortune are not considered black, or white, or brown. Rather, they are: “Jet, jet silver, silverblue, sapphire, amber sapphire, ampalosapphire, shadow silver, shadow pearl, ambergold.” Only alluring words belong in this context. Ordinary is not allowed, and flaws must be polished into assets.
Yet Danuta can’t help but see the ugly underbelly beneath this pure white surface. A former veterinary student with lingering ambition, the cost of all this luxury is not lost on her. When she sees a woman on TV in a lavish fur coat, she sees “Forty animals gutted and stitched together.” And while benefiting from the slaughter of animals never stops bothering Danuta, it’s a great relief that she no longer has to do the killing herself. This is one of the more unsettling facts of human nature: only a small distance between the blood and our hands is necessary for a quiet conscience.
Throughout the story, Danuta is compared to Princess, Sven’s prize mink, the only one he can handle without gloves. He uses the same words to compliment the animal as he uses with Danuta, and at times she is not sure who he is talking to, her or the mink. The tension between the dueling layers comes to a point during a creepy conversation about what to do with Princess: slaughter her for her coat, or keep her for breeding?
Macdonald’s writing is compact and precise. Every sentence in this short story moves the plot along or develops character. There is no wiggle room, no holes for the reader to fall through and lose interest. My Beauty teems with elegant details and pretty imagery, but always maintains a fitting layer of complexity.