Oligarchy first drew me in with the lovely set up of a modern day Russian "princess" at an English boarding school. It sounded like a fun read, but Scarlett Thomas digs much deeper than one might expect from the blurb. Oligarchy ended up being a read that really got me thinking. Thanks to Canongate and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Pub. Date: 11/7/2019
The new adult novel from the bestselling author of The , about power, privilege and peer pressure
When Tash, daughter of a Russian oligarch, is sent to an English boarding school, she is new to the strange rituals of the girls there. Theirs is a world of strict pecking orders, eating disorders and Instagram angst.
While she spends her time with the other girls at the lake and the stables, a hand-picked few are invited to join the Headmaster at his house for extra lessons. Then her friend Bianca mysteriously vanishes, and quickly the routines of her dorm-mates seem darker and more alien than ever before.
In Oligarchy Scarlett Thomas does something seemingly impossible, making the reader feel sorry for privileged young girls at a boarding school. Theirs is a life of opportunity and no consequences and yet they're starved. Not just of food, but also of affection, healthy relationships, support and, oddly enough, education. A bit of a trigger warning should probably accompany this book, since it is full of diets, starvation tips and the glorification of thinness. Although all of these are shown negatively within Oligarchy, they could still be triggering for those dealing with eating disorders or body dismorphia. I myself was intensely uncomfortable at times as I felt myself being sucked into the minds of these young girls. This is where the power of Oligarchy lies, but also where the danger lurks.
Oligarchy starts out fun as Tash tries to adjust to her new life of sudden wealth and possibility. With access to a black Amex card and far away from everything she knows, she becomes part of the elite and finds she doesn't always fit in. There is alcohol, crushes on boys, fancy cars and run down city centres. Oligarchy's story meanders a bit once it establishes Tash and her surroundings, partially by switching between genres occasionally. On the one hand it is a coming-of-age novel, as Tash has some hard lessons to learn. It is also a mystery novel once Tash's friend disappears and there are more questions than answers from the adults around her. At its heart it is a novel about teenagers, teenage girls in particular, but it does get lost in itself. Oligarchy is a quick read, and an enjoyable one, but it will leave you with a lot of questions and thoughts to which the novel offers no answers or hints.
Oligarchy also strongly picks up on our society's fetishistic obsession with young female bodies. They're ethereal, otherworldly, and oh so thin. Whether it's school deans, Weight Watchers or men on tubes, everyone is obsessed with the physicality of the slowly starving girls. There seems to be no one in Oligarchy who has a healthy relationship with their own body or the bodies of these girls. The people brought in to help them only make it worse. The people meant to look over them would rather look away in case they're tempted. At times I wished Thomas would be gentler with her own characters. They're already getting judged with every step and even Thomas can't avoid being mean to them. For me it felt like there was a layer of awareness missing there, where Thomas could have gone deeper and made more of a statement on the toxic nature of body obsession.
I give this novel...
Oligarchy is an enjoyable read with a deep hurt at its core. It is not an easy book, even if it is sometimes 'laugh out loud' funny. For those ready to confront eating disorders in this way, I'd definitely recommend Oligarchy. Just be aware and prepared.