When lots of people tell you over a very small space of time that you simply have to read a book you should listen. This was the case with Louise O’Neill’s debut novel Only Ever Yours, which won the inaugural YA Book Prize earlier this year. I think four if not five very esteemed people I was on several panels with at a conference raved about it endlessly in the space of one and a half days. So naturally I had to pick it up at the nearest bookshop I fell into on the way back to the train station. I started it on said train and suddenly the 5 hour journey had absolutely flown by and I was left looking like something that should be left in lost luggage (a bit battered and worn out) when I got to Liverpool. Yes, Only Ever Yours is one of those books that grabs you and simply will not let go… even now, months later.
I am a good girl. I am pretty. I am always happy go lucky.
The robotic voice spills down the walls and crawls along the floor, searching for a receptive ear. And we eves are more receptive when sleeping. We are like sponges, absorbing beauty, becoming more and more lovely as we dream. More and more valuable.
Except for me.
From the off, and indeed throughout, the world in Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is, to be frank, pretty f***ed up. (I honestly tried quite hard to not use ‘the f bomb’ but it is the only word that seems apt.) Girls are now bred, yes bred, for three reasons. They can become a companion to the men in society who can afford it and have babies, which will only be boys as these girls have been bred to be breeders of the male line; they can become a concubine, and have sex (with no babies) with all the men in society who can afford it; or they can become chastity’s and shave their heads, wear black gowns and raise more manufactured young girls to keep the cycle ticking along. See, I told you, f***ed up.
It is in the interior of one of these schools/factories/compounds that we join frieda and isabel who have been friends since they can remember (no my spell check hasn’t backfired, these girls – or the eves as they are called – have no capital letter at the start of their names because they are lesser and need to know it from the off) who now at sixteen enter their final and defining year when they will be introduced to boys for the first time. These teenage boys will define the girls roles in society based in some part by how they interact with them, which is a tricky beast as we discover, though mainly on their looks which have to be perfection. So the pressure is on and the claws are out, this is the year when their lives will change and no one wants to be less than a companion.
The screen snaps back into a mirror. S41 Delicate Iced Chocco hair. #66 Chindia Tellow eyes. That’s me. That’s what people see when they look at me. I peel off my nightdress and throw it into a trapdoor implanted in the wall underneath the vanity table. The cupboard opens, beeping loudly until I step in, the steel trap closing like a greedy mouth around me.
‘You have gained weight.’ The voice fills the cupboard. ‘You are now 118.8 pounds. I will recommend in your weekly report that you are to take extra kcal blockers until your weight stabilizes between 115 and 118 pounds.’
It is a grimly fascinating yet ultimately plain disturbing setting and plot that Louise O’Neill creates. Here is a world where everything is wrong with you if you are less than perfect, even the slightest blemish can ruin you. This of course breeds elitism to the point where it isn’t just weight or height that distinguish, so do race and even when you first menstruate. This is a world where the ideal is to be two dimensional, what do you need the third for after all when all you need to do is look pretty, be able to hold a simple conversation and have male babies every few years? Yet of course by being human, even if manufactured, these girls have feelings, insecurities (which are to be encouraged), fears, jealousies, bitterness and rage. None is particularly likeable, but I imagine I would be a Grade A bitch in such a situation, it is survival of the fittest and prettiest after all so even your closest friends are a threat.
‘Nice? Nice? NICE?’ megan shouts. I try to shush her but she is beyond reason.
‘Yes. You’re nice,’ agyness lies again, looking perplexed at this reaction.
‘Who cares about nice?’
‘I do. I think personality matters.’
‘Are you brain dead? Personality does NOT matter. All that matters is being pretty, you…’ she stammers with rage, ‘you feminist.’ There’s a horrified gasp. ‘Well, it’s true,’ she says defiantly. ‘Being pretty is all that matters.’
In a book like Only Ever Yours there is almost too much to talk about, though this is not a bad thing. I haven’t even started on the whole ‘sex as a powerful weapon vs. weapon of self destruction’ part of the book which I found fascinating – when the girls are given alone time in what seems to be a broom cupboard with the boys – or the way she discusses cyber bullying. However I am worried that anyone who hasn’t read the book yet and hears about all this might be worried it is all too much or all too preachy. I don’t think it is either. I think O’Neill holds back in some aspects; it could be grimmer, it could have had a lot more in it, yet less is more and the fact that O’Neill holds back to a degree, whilst writing a ripping yarn that doesn’t let you put it down, makes it all the more sinister because it is all the more possible. Well, I say possible, this is happening in the world now. I found this also stopped it from being preachy, it is a book designed to make you think and that it does in abounds, praise be.
There were also two things that had particularly stuck me by the end also. Firstly was the fact that O’Neill keeps the world in which the reader enters very confined. It doesn’t really matter that the world has gone to hell outside the four walls we remain in because actually the truly terrifying stuff is happening within them. This is all the more scary because we see the world doing it now. Girls (and the attention is shifting to boys now) are judged on their looks, size, gait etc now by the media and society as I type this, it makes the horror of O’Neill’s world close in on you all the more. Secondly what I think was a master stroke was that O’Neill gives us a group of girls whip are designed to compete with each other, almost in their DNA by default, their bid for freedom means they must one up or destroy their friends, so why do we (women and men) do it so often when we have so many options and so much more freedom than mere generations ago. Remember what I told you about it making you think on.
Then if that all wasn’t enough, there is the ending! I won’t give it away but I will say that it delivered a wallop that was almost winding, yet made your head snap and then realise how powerful it was in its brutal brilliance. Louise O’Neill, if you ever read this, I think you are an utter marvel for this book. So pertinent, so engaging, so important, so well written – I hope this book is now stocked in every school possible, it should be on the curriculum. It is certainly going to be high up on my list of books of the year.