I can’t keep comparing everything I read to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ Firstly, it makes it look like I haven’t read any other books. Secondly, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is one of my favourite books of all time, and a lot of other people’s favourite book of all time, and so it seems ridiculous to use it as a reference point for anything, let alone two books in the space of two months (‘Tarnished’ actually is a lot like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ okay? I wasn’t making it up).
Having acknowledged all this, ‘Only Ever Yours’ by Louise O’Neill (Quercus Books, 2014) reminded me a lot of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ I also refuse to believe that Louise O’Neill hasn’t read Atwood’s bar-setting feminist dystopia; I do not mean that ‘Only Ever Yours’ is derivative, but there are certain cues it takes from the big sister of all dystopian fiction. For example, the central character of ‘Only Ever Yours’ is frieda. I haven’t momentarily forgotten how to use capital letters for proper nouns; the female characters in O’Neill’s book suffer the collective indignity of not even meriting proper noun status, which will remind Atwood fans of the ‘of’+man’s name nomenclature of Gilead. The lack of capitalisation is obvious, particularly when male characters are introduced and do have a capital letter, but the narrative never actually explains or even makes reference to it. I liked this; it shows a smart writer trusting that her readers are as smart as she is.
The premise of ‘Only Ever Yours’ is complex; in a dystopian future, the world has been carved up into strange-sounding nations (calling to mind Orwell’s ‘1984’), in which women exist solely as test-tube creations, with all natural births being male. This has not happened by accident; rather, terrifying powers have decreed that women be bred solely to be trained and ultimately fulfil roles as wife, prostitute or trainer of future wives and prostitutes. The girls are raised in an ironically-named ‘School,’ in which they compete against each other constantly, focusing solely on their looks; O’Neill shows the classic dystopian abuse of language in attaching the title ‘School’ to a place where, we are told, “we were in 4th year, learning how to change nappies on our training dolls in Little Mama classes” (p40) . It’s horrific, but horrific in a believable way, which only makes it more horrific. We all know the pressures on young girls to look good, to compete for attention, to wish only for a man and a safe future. O’Neill keeps her fantasy setting just close enough to reality for it to terrifying.
I massage my thighs violently, wanting to tear strips off them as I feel the skin dimpling underneath my fingers. The room is inky black and I am glad. I am glad. I don’t want the others to see me, to see how wrong I am. (p37)
If you take away the futuristic setting, much of ‘Only Ever Yours’ could take place in any high school, and that’s what makes it really disturbing. Girls ostracising each other because of weight gain; girls competing for the attention of clearly horrible boys; girls developing crippling eating disorders and anxiety because they desperately want to be perfect. Throughout the book and after, I wanted to gather all the teenage girls I know and give them an empowering speech about what they could achieve if they stuck together. A speech and a hug. Maybe play them some Aretha Franklin.
‘Only Ever Yours’ started off by making me feel angry, then progressed to making me sad, before creating a weirdly unsettling sense of abject horror and outrage. The final section of the book, in particular, was alarming to read. The cover tells me that Jeanette Winterson describes O’Neill as writing “with a scalpel,” which is a completely accurate description. The prose style is clinical, cold and spare, leaving the reader to fill in most of the emotions for themselves: obviously, the girls here do not cry, because men don’t want a crying companion.
When I read ‘Tarnished’ by Kate Jarvik Birch, I said I wanted it to be to today’s teenage girls what ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ was to me: a call to arms, a rallying cry, a truly eye-opening experience. ‘Only Ever Yours’ gives you all of this in spades; I would be horrified to find a teenage girl (or, indeed, an adult woman) who could read this book without being deeply disturbed by basically everything in it. I now face the quandary of whether to read O’Neill’s latest, ‘Asking for It,’ which sounds even more traumatising than this. I feel it is essential that I work up the courage.