Book Review: Only Ever Yours, Louise O’Neill

“All eves are created to be perfect but, over time, they seem to develop flaws. Comparing yourself to your sisters is a useful way of identifying these flaws, but you must then take the necessary steps to improve yourself. There is always room for Improvement.”

Have you ever read a book that made you angry?

I don’t mean pissed-off-at-the-author-that-was-terrible-I-want-to-rip-my-eyes-out sort of angry, but rather a book that made you boil with absolute rage and injustice for the characters and the world which they inhabit?

A book that kept you awake at night just thinking, thinking, thinking, terrified of the parallels you’re able to draw between this fictitious place and your own society?

I have.

I have just read a book that made me want to scream. Correction. It still makes me want to scream. 24 hours later and I am still so affected by this book, that I think I could throw a full-scale toddler-esque tantrum about all the wrongs it depicts.

Seriously, I could throw myself on the floor and cry about the fate of the characters. I snapped my copy shut after greedily consuming the last page and threw it away from me. I wanted to shout at it. I wanted to yell “no” as loud as I could. I’ve always been one of those people who lives in the book they are reading. That sounds weird. I don’t dress up like them or anything because, although that sounds pretty awesome, that would be odd. I just tend to spend a lot of time thinking about what I am reading, and, if I love the book, all of my spare time consumed by it.

And the beauty of it all?

It’s a freaking Young Adult novel.

For all those readers out there who think YA is a genre not worth your time, IN YOUR FACE, because these books exist. There are loads of them; these thoughtful beautiful books, and they deserve our time. Sometimes they demand it.

But less of that. Let’s talk about this particular novel that’s got me so enraptured.

I’d long decided that a huge girl crush on Louise O’Neil was on the cards. She is hysterically funny and witty on Twitter – plus I’ve just discovered her blog on her author page and I don’t think I have laughed that much at anybody’s blog! She reminds me of my mates. These funny, funny, successful girls who deserve to be seen and heard and valued. In short, I fucking love her. I want her to come on a night out with me, do shots of tequila and tear up the dance floor.

I’d ordered O’Neill’s debut novel, Only Ever Yours, during a big Amazon used and new binge. I’m a bit broke after the whole travelling thing but decided to splurge on some books because, YOLO, and all that. I had been absolutely bursting to read How to be Both by Ali Smith and delved straight into that when the books were delivered (and left by our postie in our recycling bin – queue a rather ungraceful me, clad in pjs, rifling through the bins at 8 am) and it ended up taking me a few weeks to get through. Not that I hated the book. On the contrary, I loved it. It was just a bit of a slog for something so short. But Smith is a genius. The novel eventually reeled me – although the different narratives jarred me slightly – and I loved the thread connected between the two narratives.

Then I picked up Only Ever Yours and I was hooked from the first line. It took me a week to read the book cover to cover (and only took so long because I had to grab snatched reading moments throughout the day – 5 minutes on the train, ten at lunch, twenty before bed) and I inhaled it.

O’Neill’s perfect companion ‘eves’ are created at a sinister place called “The School”, and this is where Freida and Isabel, both 16, have spent 12 years being prepared for “the Ceremony”. This is the moment when the best women will be chosen by the most powerful young men. The fate of many of those not selected is to be a concubine.

Already got you irritated, right?

It is a witty and unsettling story. The eves are doped up on SleepSound, their weight is monitored by kcal blockers, their behaviour controlled by the weird controllers called the chastities.

There are rules: Eves must be good, they have to be pretty and they have to do as they are told. The Chastities are on hand to remind the girls what at stake if the rules are not adhered to and reel of mantras like “no man will ever want a companion who thinks too much.” In fact, just to be on the safe side, the Eves are forced into hours of Organised Recreation to prevent female hysteria. Thoughts are quite literally wiped out in a haze of nothingness.

I love the inferences to modern culture in the novel. The Eves are encourage to watch shows such as “The Americas-Zone’s Next Top Concubine,” rate each other on Your Face or Mine, and regularly update their statuses on MyFace with banal gossip and mundane everyday nonsense. Sound familiar?

The eves are ranked in order of beauty and behaviour and their ultimate function is produce children, or be present to the sexual demands of males. I am always willing.

“May you be the mother of a hundred Sons”

One horrifying moment occurs when the Eves are discussing a reality TV star who has beat his companion and admitted doing so.  Why didn’t she just deny it? seems to be the general consensus among the women. One character goes so far as to say, “He’s so yummy. I’d let him beat me.”

The satire is unflinching.

The worst thing for the Eves to be is fat. Below target weight and thin as a bird is acceptable, but fat is a no go. Fat is repulsive. Eating is seen as a weakness and not doing so is a competition. Isabel, an elusive character who lurks on the peripheries of the story, tries hard to reclaim her body.

“Why, isabel? Why are you doing this to yourself? To your body?’
And why are you doing this to me? is the awful, selfish thought that is left unsaid.
‘Because I can,’ she answers, and I shiver as she unconsciously echoes chastity-ruth.
‘But-‘
‘Because it’s my body,’ she cuts in. ‘Isn’t it?”

Youth is desirable, with older Eves (thirty is deemed old, so I am well past my sell-by date) fully supporting men’s decisions to throw their companions on the pyre or redesign their wives at the age of twenty. Rosie, one of the Eves, says: “Do you know what forty looks like? Have you seen chastity-bernadette yet?”

The Eves do not deserve capital letters for names, the men do.

Sexuality is not allowed to be fluid. The gene causing “Male abherants” has been eradicated and any mention of lesbianism is taboo, unthinkable. God help women if they find themselves having lesbian desires, the result is truly terrifying.

One of my favorite characters is Abraham who likes girls who do yoga because “it makes them more bendy” and is partial to a craft beer. There’s also mention of a character who likes to reel off his escapades with concubines involving ping-pong balls and threesomes. So far, so Nuts or Zoo magazine, right?

Porn is also bought it up in a most excellent fashion. Darwin – the #1 Inheritant – shows Frieda a site where avatars can do as they wish with female concubines hooked up to sensors. Taking her through the rooms – S&M, Sapphic – it brings to mind the deluge of clips and videos available on the internet. But it’s OK, Darwin states. These concubines won’t remember what has happened to them. Eves watch porn for sex education.

“I can’t even remember the first time I saw a porno. I presume I must have been shocked, frightened even, but after watching another and another and another they sort of blend into nothingness.”

Yes, it is a feminist book. Does this put the boys off? Probably, but it shouldn’t. Feminism is for everyone, its all-inclusive. It’s just as much about men as it is women because it’s about equality and that’s what matters. Not only are the Eves of this world expected, coerced and shamed into particular roles (albeit with far scarier, violent and permanent consequences), the male characters such as Darwin – son of a judge, urged not to be “such a girl” or a “pussy” – finds that the decisions he must make in life are already made for him by his own father, The Father, and the patriarchal society in which he finds himself.

I don’t want to say anything more about the novel because I really think you should all read it. I hope ever young adult – both male and female – read this book, discuss this book, perhaps even study this book on a syllabus or just as recommended reading from a school, because it really addresses some interesting and relevant issues.

 

Have you ever read a book that made you angry? Have you read something recently that you haven’t been able to put down? Have you read Only Ever Yours? What did you think? Let’s start a conversation.

 

 

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