It almost broke me, this did. I read it all, in one day, in giant gulps, because I couldn’t be parted from it. I read halfway through the night to get it finished, which meant I was utterly banjaxed, to use a wonderful Irish-English word, the following morning.
So worth it, though.
Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours has been described as a modern-day Handmaid’s Tale, which was what first piqued my interest in it. I am, as are all right-thinking people, a huge fan of Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale is my second favourite of her books (after The Robber Bride, which is genius); Only Ever Yours has a similar premise, but in so many ways it’s even more chilling than its predecessor. Where Atwood’s book showed a female character, subjugated in every possible way, struggling to free herself from the oppression of her existence, Only Ever Yours shows an even more horrifying scenario – one in which any attempt at creating a space in which women can taste even the barest hint of agency seems ultimately pointless.
It’s also tragic, triggering, upsetting, and rage-inducing – but it should be required reading for everyone who cares about the world we live in and what we’re doing to our girls and women.
We are introduced to freida, one of the ‘eves’ (genetically engineered girls, born of plastic ‘wombs’ and placed from early childhood in the School, where they learn how to be submissive, obedient man-pleasing objects), and the novel is narrated through her (perfect) eyes. She has one best friend among her fellow eves, a girl named isabel; they and the other eves, such as the magnificent megan and the vacant twins liz and jessie (I’m sure there’s a fangirl reference to Sweet Valley High going on here, which gave me such a wry smile as I read) live together in what I imagined as a dormitory full of independent sleep chambers. Every possible surface is mirrored. Mantras such as Fat girls should be made obsolete and Good girls are always happy and easy-going and There is always room for improvement are played regularly over loudspeakers. The eves have been taught since childhood to endlessly compare themselves to one another, uploading images of their faces and bodies to a version of social media called MyFace where ‘games’ in which they choose which ‘face’ is the best, and which body is the most perfect, are their primary means of communication and ‘entertainment’. Rankings among the eves are mercilessly fought for – isabel was #1 for years, and even though freida is her friend, when isabel is knocked off the top spot for reasons which aren’t made clear until the end of the book, freida can’t help but wish that she could be the eve who replaces her.
She isn’t. Instead, it’s megan, and we see isabel slowly begin to destroy herself. This leaves freida in an impossible position – to jockey for favour with megan, or stick with isabel, a girl whom she loves deeply but who is sliding so far down the rankings as to make her dangerous, and whose presence in freida’s life may damage her prospects for the future. Prospects which might spell the difference between life and death, for the Inheritants are coming – the top 10 most powerful young men in the Euro-Zone, who want to choose an eve for their very own. There are only 10 men, but there are twenty-nine eves…
I couldn’t believe how sharply observed this novel was. Things which are so familiar to me, as a woman who grew up very imperfect-looking, are all over the story. Backhanded compliments. ‘Concern trolling’ – which wasn’t called that when I was young, but which certainly existed. Perfectly judged comments designed to find another girl’s weak point and shatter her without giving her an opportunity to mount a defence for fear of ‘losing face.’ Power play between teenage girls which would put most four-star generals to shame. The intricacy of peer groups, and the ties which bind girls to one another – not friendship or love, but survival. Complicated, to say the least, relationships with food, nutrition, exercise and body image. The insular, isolated, high-pressured environment of the School – which mirrors, in so many ways, the anxiety and stress inside the minds of so many teenage girls. It is no surprise that every surface in this book is reflective.
Hip-hop culture and its misogynistic portrayal of women is depicted – but instead of the girls taking up arms against the woman-hating message of the song they hear, they wholeheartedly embrace the lesson that they are nothing but slaves to a man’s lust. Reality TV, where ‘characters’ are shown receiving beatings from their husbands, are understood as instruction manuals for the girls’ future lives as ‘companions’ (passive ‘wives’ to powerful men like the Inheritants, whose only objective is to bear sons and be euthanised at forty). Pornography is a way of life, and girls who are to become ‘concubines’ see their futures reflected in it. The third group of women – those who are not appealing to men, and for whom no other use can be found – become ‘chastities’, whose job it is to teach in the School and prepare the next generations of girls to become mindless, eternally pleasing and aesthetically perfect women. So much of what O’Neill depicts here already exists in our world, in some form; it doesn’t take a huge leap to see the things we live with every day becoming the horror she so expertly depicts in this novel.
Here is an extract which, I think, is illustrative of the novel as a whole, from pages 60-61 in my edition:
‘Step forward, #727.’
The glass doors part. She stands before us.
‘Remove your dressing gown.’
There’s silence. christy unties the white towelling robe and lets it fall to the ground. She’s wearing pink lace underwear, small lumps of flesh spilling out over the knickers, the inner edges of her thighs close to touching.
‘#727 has been lazy. She has been lazy and she has been greedy. She deserves to be punished. Don’t you agree?’
Flashes from digi-cams and eFones are exploding like a flood. My hands are clammy, fear crawling up my spine bone by bone, unfurling in my throat.
‘Don’t you agree, girls?’ A note of warning has entered her voice.
‘I can’t hear you. Does #727 deserve to be punished?’
‘YES, chastity-ruth.’ We have to give her what she wants. We will give her whatever she wants.
She reaches into the pocket of her robe and retrieves a marker, someone behind me gasping at the rare sight of a writing implement. Wielding it like a blade, she walks around christy, once, twice, three times, before cutting into christy’s fair skin, drawing vivid red circles on her body.
‘What is #727, girls? What is she?’
We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.
‘She’s fat, girls. She’s fat and disgusting. Say it with me. She’s fat. Fat. Fat.’
This book is so disturbing because, despite being a fantasy of the future, it is the reality through which so many people are living, even now. It is the 24-7, always-on, internet generation, in which judgement of others makes you a better person and where you are always on the lookout for someone more flawed than you are. It’s a world of ‘fashion’ magazines, with their ‘circles of shame’ and their judgement of women’s bodies and their relentless focus on appearance, attractiveness, perfection. It’s a world in which how you look, and how you’re seen, is everything. It’s a world where young girls are taught that they are not people in their own right, but they exist only to please. It’s the world in which we teach little girls not to cry or make a fuss or get dirty in case they ruin their ‘prettiness’; it’s the world in which we deny little girls the right to an education because what good is it, being literate, when you don’t need to read to give birth or wash dishes? It’s the world in which little boys are encouraged to be whatever they like – not without its own pressure, of course – and little girls are taught to obey.
It is the world we live in now. And it is horrifying.
Only Ever Yours is a marvellous book, but it is hard to read in places if you have any experience with body-image issues, disordered eating, cyberbullying, domestic violence or sexual assault. This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be read: on the contrary, it makes it even more important. It’s the most clear-eyed, intelligent and compelling dissection of our vacuous and hate-filled society that I’ve ever seen. Like lancing any boil, it is painful – but it is necessary. If you know and love a teenage girl – indeed, even a teenage boy – read this book, then let them read it, and discuss the issues it brings up. Perhaps that’s the first step we can all take in changing our thinking for the benefit of everyone – and we get to read a brilliant story, masterfully written, to sweeten the deal. I can’t recommend it highly enough.