Book review: Only Ever Yours

Title: Only Ever Yours
Author: Louise O’Neill
Amazon links: UK, US
Genre: Fiction, Young Adult

I’ve noted the genre as “Young Adult”, but Only Ever Yours has nothing that feels “young” about it – not once did I feel it had been dumbed down for a youngish audience, either in the ideas expressed or the way in which they were expressed. That seems to a common theme in good YA fiction these days – they’re simply good books which also happen to be suitable for young people. I’m looking forward to my eldest son (about to be 12) finally getting round to reading Only Ever Yours, so we can talk about his own impressions…


I’m going to try to restrain myself from spoilers in this review, but it’s hard to say very much without giving some parts away.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. The nature of the apocalypse isn’t made clear, although it is indicated that the population is discouraged from finding out too much about it. After the event, the population is radically smaller, and the nature of reproduction has changed: boys are born, but girls are “designed”. Almost all the action of the novel is set in the School where the girls are prepared for their adult life, which will consist of being a companion, a concubine or a chastity. The first two of these roles are pretty obvious, although “companion” sounds considerably more egalitarian than the reality; the chastities are the teachers in the School. The girls are divided into these roles by the boys in society who are of the same age: the boys choose their companions, with the boy from the most prestigious family having first pick.

The story is told from the perspective of freida, in the months leading up to the Ceremony which marks her graduation from the School, when her future is decided for her. We see her battles with peer pressure, eating and sleeping disorders, friendship, betrayal, romance and more.

That quick description doesn’t really attempt to do justice to the storyline. All I want to get across here is the premise. While the story is compelling, it’s not really what I took away from the book. Perhaps it’s the story that kept me turning the pages, but it’s the atmosphere that haunts me afterwards.

Style and themes

Beyond the initial “what’s going on?” intrigue which is a natural part of the first few pages of any book, the oppressive nature of the world of Only Ever Yours makes itself clear immediately, simply in capitalization. Every girl’s name and every woman’s name is in lower case. When I earlier referred to freida, that wasn’t a typo – that’s how she’s consistently referred to throughout the book, including within her own thoughts. Compare that with the many other aspects of the story which are capitalized – the School itself, room names, web sites, special events, and of course, all the boys’ and mens’ names.

Normally, I’m not a fan of this sort of thing. I think of the normal rules of English as a convention to help convey ideas, to reduce the friction of trying to get inside someone else’s head. Painting a pipe funk colours doesn’t make water flow through it any more easily. (This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a carefully-crafted sentence; it just means I’m not a fan of difference for the sake of difference.) I can only think of a very few times when something which could be regarded as a gimmick has been effective for me as a reader – A Clockwork Orange being the most obvious one. The difference is that while I gave up reading A Clockwork Orange the first time, the change in punctuation in Only Ever Yours is slight enough that it doesn’t make the book any harder to read. It’s not subtle – I doubt that any reader would fail to notice it – but it doesn’t get in the way. Instead, it just constantly reinforces the impression of what’s important and what’s not in this brave new world.

While the capitalization is the most easily-cited example of the way that O’Neill crafts the claustrophobic world of the School, it’s only one aspect. It’s relentless – just when you think it can’t get more depressing, it does. Of course, if it were just grim reading, it would be monotonous and unreadable, but the bursts of joy and creativity that freida experiences just make it more sickening when the system pounds everything positive out of her life. Here, the system doesn’t just consist of the rules of the School, or the strictness of the chastities – it is the competitiveness of the other girls, and even the voice inside freida’s own head telling her she’s not good enough.

O’Neill reinforces what actually happens with what she chooses to describe – the clothes the girls wear are described frequently, but the girls themselves usually only merit comparisons with each other, and even that in a sort of airbrushed, plastic way. (Admittedly the face of the plastic doll on the front cover has no doubt affected my memory of the book, but that just goes to show how it builds as a whole.)

The inner monologue of freida sometimes comes close to full-on rebellion, but I don’t think she ever steps back to question the whole system… she has internalized her fate as simply what life is like for girls. Even without that level of awareness, I got the impression that freida is perhaps unusually thoughtful and inquisitive. I’m not sure whether that was O’Neill’s intent, however – some of the other girls do have distinctive personalities, but we don’t get to see much beneath the surface. (Both isabel and agyness come over well, having said that. How much is that me liking them, and how much is it freida liking them? Hard to tell.)

Obviously the overarching theme of the book is the tyranny of misogyny, and how pervasive it can become. There’s no attempt to excuse it or lessen it – it’s just there, bleeding through every paragraph, casually malevolent. The majority of the book is “man-free” in terms of direct interactions (although clearly not in terms of context) – and although I’d like to write a little about the attitudes shown by the boys later in the book, I think that’s too close to the boundary of spoilers.

The obsession with physical beauty is the strongest manifestation of self-reinforced oppression (for which there’s no doubt a better word), but this is compounded by the absence of anything more intellectually or emotionally stimulating. Learning about nature has to be done on the sly; trying to find out about maths rings alarm bells. Exuberance is suppressed as far as possible.

Reactions and conclusion

I’m very aware that I’ve been gushing throughout this review so far. I know that unrelenting praise can be a bit cloying, so I will say one aspect which niggled: it felt like either I’d misunderstood the population size of the EuroZone (and possibly the world), or there were some inconsistencies there. The TV shows, social media and pharmaceuticals felt like they were part of a much more densely populated world than other aspects of the book led me to believe. As I say, maybe I misunderstood how the system worked somewhat, and it doesn’t impact on the book much at all, given that the vast majority of the story is firmly within the walls of the School.

So did I learn anything? I’m not sure I’d put it that way – but I’d say it’s added to my experience and beliefs around feminism. Unlike O’Neill’s other novel (Asking For It – to be reviewed shortly…) this is set in a fictional future, and doesn’t claim that this is the way the world is right now. It’s hard not to see pretty much every aspect of the misogyny in the book somewhere in our life, however. It’s as if the difference is in concentration – the poison which is pure in Only Ever Yours is diluted by not-so-sucky bits of life in our world. It still acts as a warning though, reminiscent of 1984. I read this book concurrently with Everyday Sexism, which brought everything into fairly miserable focus, but it made it a very contemporary experience. The recent story about Essena O’Neill’s experiences with Instagram – no relation to Louise O’Neill as far as I’m aware – adds more evidence that we should heed the warnings from Only Ever Yours.

To conclude, I’d strongly recommend Only Ever Yours, with the warning that it’s far from a fun read. It’s very dark – but equally gripping and beautifully told. It will stay with me for a long time.

The Women’s Equality Party, and why I joined it

Given my previous post, this one shouldn’t be much of a surprise. In March 2015, the Women’s Equality Party (WE) was formed, initially spearheader by Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig. I heard about it at the time, and was interested to follow its progression, but didn’t give it much thought.

On August 29th1, the Guardian ran a piece with Catherine Mayer, Sandi Toksvig and Sophie Walker, who was the new leader of the party (and will be until elections in 2016). I can’t put my finger on exactly what appealed within the article – other than the non-partisan nature spirit – but it was enough to convince me to join. As a package, it felt “right”. I’m member 4111, literally a card-carrying member so as to have a constant reminder and conscience-pricker if it’s necessary. I’ve never been the member of a political party before – although as far as WE are concerned I could join another party without it being a problem at all.

On October 20th, the party had a big launch event with first policy document outlining the vision for making progress against inequality along the six main objectives. (And yes, that’s my ugly mug on page 13 of the policy document.)

I’m not going to rehash the policies here – please read the policy document for details. It’s a very readable and clear set of policies, and I’m looking forward to discussing them further at my local branch. They’re not all “comfortable” policies, and I suspect the most controversial one will be around quotas for representation in the House of Commons. I don’t think anyone really likes the idea of quotas, and I hate the idea of either “lowering the bar” or even the perception of that. I don’t think we need to lower the bar at all in order to achieve equal representation – but I do think we may need to go further in order to encourage and support women candidates who are effectively fighting the cultural norm. (This is my view for women in STEM careers too, by the way.) Equality in representation is simply coming too slowly at the moment… other suggestions for quickening it would be welcome, I’m sure.

So why a political party, and why now? Why not just another pressure group? Well, in terms of timing, obviously I had nothing to do with it – it just so happened that WE came along at around the same time as my increasingly feminist view. But I do think the approach of forming a political party is an interesting one. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m imagining possible results being:

  • No change anywhere, and general frustration
  • Individual politicians taking a more pro-equality stance, even if their official party policies don’t change significantly
  • Mainstream parties making a much more serious effort – for example, taking into consideration (and ideally reporting) the impact of proposed policies on different sections of the community.
  • WE managing to get councillors and MPs elected, influencing government more directly

I’m guessing (or possibly hoping is more accurate) that it will be the second of these followed by the third. I want our representatives to be sufficiently afraid of the awkward questions being asked in hustings that they feel the best option is to tackle them head-on. I want them to try to outdo each other in constructing policies which will effect real change. I want them to feel proud of themselves at the end of the day for doing so, too.

Ultimately I believe that the most important change isn’t a legislative one, but a massive cultural shift. Ever-better laws protecting equal rights don’t accomplish that in and of themselves – but I think they send a positive message to society: “This is the sort of country we want to live in.” I’m sure that has happened already – while the same-sex marriage act 2013 undoubtedly upset many people, I believe it also encouraged a larger group to rethink their position on homosexuality, whether consciously or not.

Maybe WE will work. Maybe the party can be disbanded before I have grandchildren. Maybe it will be a dismal failure – but at least I’ll know I did my (little) bit to try.

1 Or thereabouts – the online piece says August 28th, but I believe it was in the August 29th print edition, which is where I saw it.

Feminism and Me

I’ve been mildly interested in women’s equality issues for a while, but it was some time in the summer or 2014 – almost certainly as part of reading Gamergate commentary – that I ended up reading a fair chunk of the Geek Feminism Wiki. That was the start of a journey which is far from complete, but firmly begun.

At this stage, my views are reasonably “mainstream feminist” as far as I can tell. As an incomplete list of example views:

  • I believe women deserve equal pay for equal work, and that despite the Equal Pay Act 1970, that’s still not happened.
  • I believe society is squandering the talent of women through a culture of making it harder for them to make career progress in many professions, often through unconscious bias. (I believe that the same is true for men in some other professions – and that fixing the culture would fix both problems.)
  • I believe we are culturally desensitized to the difference in how men and women are represented and perceived. The media does a lot of this representation, but I believe that’s just part of a feedback loop of culture. The media may well be a great lever for helping to fix the culture though.
  • I believe that violence against women is significantly under-reported, under-prosecuted and horribly stigmatized against victims. The high bar for proof and “innocent until proven guilty” principles of the law do sound noble and I’m extremely wary of changing them – but they lead to a particular disparity in violence against women. At some point, the notion of “I’d rather let ten criminals go free than one innocent person go to prison” has to give.1
  • I believe our cultural and professional expectations of child-rearing need to change, and that this would be a net win for everyone. I suspect that more equal parenting would help keep families together in some cases, give better male role models, improve career opportunities for women, give men a better work/life balance, and so on.
  • I believe that remarks and catcalls which might be described as jokes or compliments by some have a significant impact on the lives of women who have to put up with them day in and day out. It’s hard for those who don’t experience this to really appreciate the impact – so I think it’s best to believe the reports of those who do.
  • I believe that with better representation in both politics and business, many aspects of our society would be fairer. Going back to “squandering the talent” point made earlier, I’m sure that widening the pool of thought leadership would lead to better ideas being aired, too.
  • I believe many people suffer discrimination on multiple fronts (e.g. race, sexual orientation, physical or mental disabilities) and that this can have a very significant effect on quality of life, requiring particular care and consideration in combination rather than treating each aspect of discrimination as isolated.
  • I believe trans women are women, and should be treated as such by society. There’s a huge amount I don’t know about trans and more at the moment, and I suspect that I’ll only make a dent in my ignorance over time… but I’m aware that those who aren’t conveniently cisgender (in whatever way) face very particular challenges within a cisgender-oriented society.
  • I believe men have a part to play in supporting causes of equality. (And yes, I think it’s entirely reasonable for me to call myself a feminist.)

I can’t decide whether that sounds like a bold set of beliefs that I should be somewhat ashamed of not putting into practice as well as I might… or just obvious, hard-to-dispute truths (that I should be somewhat ashamed of not putting into practice…) I tend towards the latter option, but if these things really are fairly obvious, why is the world the way it is? I suspect it’s like an oil tanker being very hard to turn around – deep shifts in culture (rather than just trends and technological habits) seem to take a very long time to materialize.

Most of my education so far has come from books, so it’s probably worth listing the relevant ones I’ve read (so far) since the Geek Feminism Wiki awakening. In no particular order:

I’m hoping to review each of these on this blog to whatever extent I can still do so (bearing in mind the time between reading and reviewing in some cases), but before going into details I can heartily recommend all of them here and now. Even those I found I disagreed with most (The Female Eunuch in particular) were definitely worth reading, and were thought-provoking. I’d particularly recommend Everyday Sexism as an eye-opener… and if you’re more of a fan of fiction than non-fiction (as I usually am), both of the Louise O’Neill books listed above are wonderful but deeply disturbing.

Next up: The Women’s Equality Party, and why I joined it. After that, book reviews – and after that, I may have had some original thoughts worth noting.

1 To clarify my view here, as it’s provoked some alarm – I really am extremely wary of changing any of this, but I don’t think the status quo is good enough. When so many cases of sexual violence are “he said” vs “she said”, what does count as fair? How can we best protect everyone? No system will be perfect, but it seems clear to me that the current approach simply isn’t working. Surely we can do better.