An Atwoodian YA tale…

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

only ever yoursIt’s rare that a cover quote on a book cover sums up a novel so completely, but the one from Vagenda on one of the paperback editions of Louise O’Neill’s debut novel is near-perfect:

‘Mean Girls meets The Handmaid’s Tale’

But of course I can’t leave it there! The moment I read O’Neill’s second novel, Asking For It, as the first book I read this year (review here), I knew I had to read her first one soon – and Reading Ireland Month gave me the excuse I needed to pick it out of the TBR pile.

Asking For It is a contemporary cautionary tale about teenaged girls, sexual consent and the consequences that made me weep – a true crossover novel that older teenagers and adults alike will be moved by. Only Ever Yours, which won the inaugural YA Book Prize last year, is also primarily about teenaged girls, but comes from a different viewpoint – a disturbing work of speculative fiction that is not just for teenaged readers…

Sometime in the near future. It is the start of term in freida’s final year of what appears to be a boarding school for girls run by teachers called chastities. The illusion of it being a normal but futuristic version of a traditional Convent style girls’ boarding school run by nuns are, however, immediately banished.

Outside the main entrance of the dormitory, a free-standing fotobooth has been reassembled for the start of the new term. […]

I stumble into the empty booth, sliding the door shut behind me.

  1. Turn partially to the camera, one foot in front of the other.
  2. Weight on the back foot.
  3. Left hand on hip.
  4. Dazzling smile.

There is a flash of light, my foto uploaded instantly to the School website for the Euro-Zone Inheritants to judge, determining my opening ranking for the year. I’m left in the darkness. I should leave, but just for a moment I want to stay in here. I want to hide, fold into the shadows and become invisible so no one can look at me any more.

I hope the foto was perfect. (p15)

In ten months time, the girls will be sixteen, and will take part in the Ceremony. The luckiest ones will be chosen by the Inheritants to be their ‘companions’, that leaves all the others to be concubines, except for the rare girls that will become the chastities who will look after the following classes and generations of girls bred for the Men.

freida and daria are in their new classroom discussing isabel, who has been out of circulation when another girl enters:

‘megan’s here,’ daria interrupts, running her fingers underneath the frayed edges of her bleached denim cut-offs and pulling them down her tanned muscular thighs. ‘megan! Over here!’ She waves her over to us. ‘Now she really looks amazing.’

I look at her sharply. Is that supposed to mean I don’t?

‘megan, you look beautiful!’ daria says as megan air-kisses the twins, smacking loudly, her painted red lips inches away from their skin. ‘Beautiful,’ I mutter, wishing I was lying. A thin sheath of sea-green silk clings to her perfect body, a one-shouldered fell-length toga. 3.0 Brown Black hair is styled in coiled plaits at the crown of her head, #214 Arsenic Green eyes seared into her luminously pale skin. She’s perfect. (p19)

The coming months are full of these girls all jockeying for position as queen bee, top of the rankings, all hoping to be matched to the top boy Inheritant.  There are constant worries over maintaining the perfect, near-anorexic weight, getting enough sleep, spots and blemishes, hair and make-up, not to mention learning to be the perfect companion. megan, is top bully and recognises that freida is now her nearest rival in looks. freida, however, has other worries. Isabel is – was – her best friend, and the most beautiful of them all, but something happened and she changed. She let herself go, and is being treated as a special case by the chastities; freida worries so much, she can’t sleep, needing extra doses of SleepSound to get what little rest she can.

Four months before the ceremony, they will meet the Inheritants for the first time – three girls bred for each son born.  The boys are also ranked according to their fathers’ occupations and the star prize is Darwin, son of a judge (note how he gets a capital letter!). Supervised interactions will allow the boys to get to know all the girls for when the Ceremony arrives and they choose their companions. I can’t say more.

O’Neill has been very clever, surely taking Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as an inspiration in which unfortunate young women are assigned to be concubines for the powerful men, even though they have their wives still, but moving it on to look at how that system could evolve for the following generations in her story. Hence the schools to breed and provide fertile young women for the sons, in order to beget more sons – which brings in the teenage protagonists that readers of YA novels particularly respond to.

The school-based system allows the author to explore the dynamics between the girls, and the girls and boys, dissecting away the layers of real personality leaving these false personae, Barbie-doll-like shells (as on the original cover, above), that this male dominated society has decreed are the new norm. Variation and individual expression is supposed to have been bio-engineered out of the girls, but of course it hasn’t.

Reading Ireland monthO’Neill being an Irish author too, there are echoes of the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland’s quite recent past – the last only closed in 1996. Run by the Roman Catholics, initially these laundries were workhouse-style asylums for ‘fallen women’, but they became institutionalised and more than just fallen women were isolated within their walls; this institutionalisation is all O’Neill’s girls know, and although the novel finishes after the Ceremony, if you’ve read Atwood you know how the story goes.

This novel has real depth and is so thought-provoking – see also Simon Savidge’s opinion. Louise O’Neill is one to watch and I can’t wait to read whatever she writes next. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy

Louise O’Neill, Only Ever Yours (Quercus, 2015) paperback, 394 pages.

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