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.