Sunday, 7 December 2014

Review: Only Ever Yours - Louise O' Neill

Publisher: Quercus
Published: July 2014
Source: Bought
Pages: 400
Rating: 5 Stars

Wow, just wow. It has been almost two months since I read this book and I'm still reeling a little bit. But I have to review it at some point, so here you go.


In a world in which baby girls are no longer born naturally, women are bred in schools, trained in the arts of pleasing men until they are ready for the outside world. At graduation, the most highly rated girls become “companions”, permitted to live with their husbands and breed sons until they are no longer useful. For the girls left behind, the future – as a concubine or a teacher – is grim.

Best friends Freida and Isabel are sure they’ll be chosen as companions – they are among the most highly rated girls in their year. But as the intensity of final year takes hold, Isabel does the unthinkable and starts to put on weight. ..

And then, into this sealed female environment, 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. . .

I have my friend John Joe to thank for the experience of reading this book, as well as a feature I read in the Irish Times. The feature, written by Anna Carey in June of this year, really made me curious. So when I saw the book in a bookstore (duh) a few months later, I proclaimed to no one in particular "I want this for Christmas." I was in there with a group of friends, and one of them - the aforementioned John Joe, who is probably a saint - proceeded to buy it while I wasn't looking and hand it to me just past the counter. I still need to return the favour, but here's your thank you.

This book was phenomenal. I have to keep Harry Potter as my all-time favourite book just out of habit and nostalgia, but (as objectively as these things can get) I think this is the best book I've ever read. A lot of the things I want to talk about involve spoilers but I can't justify spoiling such an incredible book, so I'm a bit constrained here. Anyway.

First of all, I loved the writing. It's clear and delicate, just like the first-person narrator and main character freida. And no, that wasn't a mistake: none of the girls' names are capitalised. They are artificially made, and although they refer to each other by (noncapitalised) name because of course they see themselves as people, the Chastities (basically nuns who control the girls' education until they're 16) refer to them by number. freida is #630.

The girls can't read. This is a spoiler but not a huge one - it's just something that's never explicitly mentioned until maybe 66% through. The girls always talk about going on MyFace (their version of Facebook) but they're constantly looking at pictures of other girls and uploading videos of themselves talking. I had presumed there was text because reading is such a big part of our lives, but there isn't. They get by without it. After all, they're toys for men's pleasure - why do they need to be able to read?

Also, O' Neill doesn't avoid talking about race, although she does keep it nicely balanced. At one point Freida is playing Your Face or Mine, a comparison game where you choose which girl is prettier, in bed. She chooses the black girl and sees that the white one has been chosen fifty times today. And then she says: "I stare at myself in my mirrors, imagining taking a grater to my skin, peeling off the top layer. My bones might be white enough." There are other indications too, but this was an important moment for me because - being a white girl - I admit I had assumed that she was white, that I was whitewashing her in my own mind. This is why books can't just avoid the topic of race and presume people will fill in diversity for themselves. It's also why initiatives like We Need Diverse Books are important.

The foreshadowing is incredible. So subtle the first time, but upon rereading the details jump out at you. This is especially strong with isabel.

Conversations between the girls:

"No way," alessandra says. "I would kill for your lips. And blue eyes are cuter, everyone knows that." megan raises an eyebrow. "Blue and green eyes."

"Yeah, but I'd much prefer your nose. It's straighter than mine," rosie says, squeezing the tip of her own perfectly straight nose.

"Well, at least you're not fat like me."

"What? Have you seen my thighs? I'm practically veering into isabel territory," rosie says, pinching non-existent thigh fat. She waits, hiding a tiny smile as the garden bursts with dissenting voices.

"You are so not fat. I'm fat."

They sound so annoying, don't they? But as a girl, you can see a glimmer of truth, particularly in the "fat" comments. Theirs is just exacerbated because they've been mentally abused since birth and there's so much competition to finish in the top ten in the year so they can become companions.

Only Ever Yours is so heartbreaking. It doesn't pull any punches. Any. Towards the end I was desperately hoping for a deus ex machina but there was none. freida never caught a break just because we felt sorry for her, and O' Neill didn't hide behind vagueness during the horrors she went through. Not that it was physical, mind you - there was little physical pain in the book. Most of it is psychological and mental and oh god is it powerful. It's taking my breath away just thinking about it now.

There's a beautiful exploration of LGBT issues here that I wish I could delve into but can't for fear of spoilers. It's really great though.

Only Ever Yours bears resemblance to older dystopians like Brave New World, or so I've heard (as I haven't actually read the older ones yet) like the way Messages are played as the eves sleep to subconsciously influence them: "Nobody will ever love a fat girl" "Fat girls should be made obsolete" "Good girls are always happy and easy-going".

But honestly - who cares? This is INCREDIBLE.

Feminism is an awful swear word, the new f-word. This is especially relevant with Time's recent blunder, in proposing that the word be banned. Funny how reality echoes fiction sometimes, isn't it? It's lucky that we currently have non-lab-made women to make the media think twice.

The chastities ensure there can be no female solidarity, as the girls are constantly forced to compare amongst themselves and vilify anyone even a couple of pounds over target weight. There's one scene where a "fat" girl is sent to the front of the classroom and everyone is expected to shout insults at her. And they do. Why wouldn't they? It's all they know.

The eves place beauty over life - while it's not explicitly said, the eves seem to be euthanized somewhere around forty before they get old and saggy, the worst fate of all. Their biggest fear is being ugly - they would prefer to die before losing their beauty, as they've been told it's their greatest and only asset.

I have so much more to say about this book, but I'm afraid of spoiling it. I'll just say that it really truly blew me away and if there's one book I recommend buying for Christmas, it's this one. 

Other Reviews:*

*This feature comes from Aylee at Recovering Potter Addict. 

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