New Fiction: School of horrors
‘Only Ever Yours’, Louise O’Neill’s first novel, creates a convincingly chilling dystopia
Only Ever Yours
Kate Moss’s controversial statement that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels would fit well as the motto of the school in the dystopian world of Only Ever Yours (Quercus, €11.99). The live-in pupils, known as eves, begin their education at four and graduate at 17 to fulfil whatever function is required of them in the male-governed world of the Euro-Zone. We meet our batch of 30 eves in their final year, 10 months from the ceremony where their fate will be determined.
Their creator, the Cork-born writer Louise O’Neill, has a background in fashion journalism, and her knowledge of the industry and the pressure it puts on women shines through.
Her debut novel is billed as a cross between the film Mean Girls and Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale. The publishing industry loves categorising new fiction by aligning it to earlier hits, but in this instance the comparisons are apt. The hormonally charged battleground of Tina Fey’s acclaimed movie is taken to extreme in O’Neill’s book. This is the bitchiest high school you’ll ever come across. And just as, in Atwood’s seminal novel, 30 years old next year, Offred and her fellow handmaids are designated child bearers in the Republic of Gilead, the ruling elite in Only Ever Yours controls the bodies of women to horrific extremes.
O’Neill presents an exaggerated version of the size-zero culture that is at once surreal and terribly recognisable. Frieda and her fellow eves are locked into a school of mirrors and screens where every waking moment is spent thinking about their appearance: “You may be designed perfectly, but there is always room for Improvement.” Set entirely in this teenage world, the novel has huge crossover appeal, and there is plenty within for both young-adult and older readers to absorb.
Tensions run high in final year. With only 10 coveted companion positions available, competition is vicious. The losers become chastities or concubines, condemned to groom future generations or dispatched to the harem.
The eves have computerised stylists and bottomless wardrobes to help them preen. O’Neill’s sartorial background is evident: neon-yellow satchels, gold-lace overlays, nightdresses with broderie-anglaise trims. These products are dangled to titillate the reader and make us complicit in their disempowerment.
Driving the plot is Frieda’s friendship with a special eve named Isabel. Once they were close enough to share a bed; now the distance between them adds intrigue for much of the narrative. Frieda’s attempts to get chosen by Darwin, the top Inheritant, also propel the story, which in later parts can feel repetitive because of the confined setting.
Monitored and constantly tested, the eves are designed with human compulsions but must practise inhuman levels of self-control. O’Neill had anorexia as a teenager, and she vividly depicts the mental torture behind such denials. There is a Fatgirl buffet laden with goodies – chocco, fried chick-chick, French toast, whipped kream – to tempt them away from the zero-cal options they know they should be eating.
One wonders why the buffet exists, or why the eves were designed to need food at all. It is one of the school’s many unnecessary cruelties, intriguing to read about but warranting further exploration. Women are an underclass, existing only for their functions to men and discarded on a pyre when no longer of use.
Subservience is a requisite in the Interactions and Heavenly Seventy sessions with the Inheritants. Darwin is the nicest of the bunch, in that he doesn’t force Frieda to have sex with him, but he is no fairy-tale prince. The son of a judge, he knows what is expected of him, and her feelings, or Unacceptable Emotions, repel him. The male world of the Euro-Zone is also hierarchical. All men are better than women, but some men are better than other men. Men, for all their power, have little control over their own destinies.
Frieda’s chronic self-esteem issues, self-centredness and desire to be popular threaten to overwhelm in the final sections. The bleakness of her world and her inevitable breakdown lessen the suspense, as it becomes obvious that there is no hope of escape or redemption.
A nightmarish scene in which she is trapped in a televised episode of her deepest insecurities lifts the story again and reminds us that self-worth is impossible in a world where freedom means becoming a legitimate prostitute to a man with a good career – that is, until you reach your 30s and have to self-immolate so he can swap you for a younger, thinner model. Even Kate Moss would find herself on the pyre.