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    YA fiction reader, freelance editor, home-baker, moustache admirer and very small person.

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Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill review

21805717In the run-up to the announcement of the UK YA Book Prize I’m reading each of the books on the shortlist. For more details about my reading challenge and the shortlist click here.

freida and isabel have been best friends their whole lives. Now, aged sixteen and in their final year at the School, they expect to be selected as companions – wives to wealthy and powerful men. The alternative – life as a concubine – is too horrible to contemplate. But as the intensity of the final year takes hold, the pressure to remain perfect becomes almost unbearable. isabel starts to self-destruct, putting her beauty – her only asset – in peril. And then, the boys arrive, eager to choose a bride. freida must fight for her future – even if it means betraying the only friend, the only love, she has ever known…

This unsettling book plunges you straight into a dark and distant future, where the world has been decimated by climate change and as a result only small pockets of humanity exist in a tightly controlled society, where all female babies are genetically designed rather than naturally birthed. These ‘eves’ are raised in a sinister environment known as ‘The School’, and they are destined for one of three purposes: to be companions, selected by the wealthiest men to bear their children; to be concubines, their lives dedicated to the sole purpose of giving men pleasure; or to be chastities, nun-like entities who must dedicate their lives to running The School and indoctrinating the next generation of eves. The School is a harsh environment in which the girls are pitted against each other. They were created perfect, but there is always ‘room for improvement’, and improve they must if they are to gain the highest rankings and be in with a chance of being chosen as a companion by one of the Inheritants on the day of The Ceremony, at the end of their sixteenth year.

If I had to sum this book up in one word, it would be unheimlich – uncanny. There are so many things in it that at once feel familiar and yet at the same time at odds with reality. I mean, you could be reading about a regular boarding school, filled with girls doing regular teenage stuff like posting selfies on ‘MyFace’, swapping makeup tips, learning how to make the perfect red velvet cupcakes. But they are doing all of these things as if part of some manic and perverse board game. And there is no world outside this school for them – no parents, no family. They are surrounded by mirrors and streaming images that constantly remind them of the need to be perfect – just one example that really stuck with me was the flashing images of women, with red circles drawn around their sweat patches and bad wardrobe choices. It’s something I’ve always dismissed as vaguely amusing in gossip magazines, but in this context it made me realise what an unpleasant thing it is to do, and the how it reinforces the idea that women must always strive to be perfect.

The action begins four months before The Ceremony, and sees narrator freida unravelling as the pressure mounts. Once the #1 ranking eve, her best friend isabel has already gone into self-destruct mode, swinging between piling on the pounds as she stuffs her face at the ‘FatGirl’ buffet and starving herself. Rather than help and support her only true friend, freida chooses to, or at least feels she must, focus on ensuring her own success and so aligns herself with megan, the next contender for the top spot. To me, this betrayal was the saddest thing in the novel. I felt very conflicted about the character freida – on the one hand feeling sorry for her because of the brutal world she lives in, on the other hand dismayed at her inability to ever get things right. I can’t say that I really liked any of the characters – megan and the other eves are a perfect study of bitchy teenage cliques, while Darwin and the other Inheritants are insipid and one-track-minded. But then how could any of them hope to turn out otherwise in such a restrictive, unbalanced social order? The Inheritants are just as much a product of their environment as the eves – son of a judge Darwin gets to choose whichever eve he wants to be his companion, just as long as he chooses what his father wants for him. isabel is the only beacon of hope in all this, the only character who shows genuine friendship and selflessness, but it seems she is almost doomed because of it.

It is a truly immersive reading experience and a powerful piece of writing. The author has taken a premise and explored every possibility. The level of detail was mind-blowing, and I loved little touches like the use of lower case for all the eves’ names to show their inferiority.  It was also a world from which I was only too happy to resurface when the tale drew to its unpleasant end. And yet then I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days – and wanting other people to read it too. It’s brave, it’s clever, it’s supremely dark and it definitely deserves its place on this shortlist.






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