“You may have been perfectly designed but there is always room for improvement.”
Blurb: “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.”
Having read Louise O’Neill’s more recent book Asking For It, I sort of knew what to expect when going into her debut. O’Neill has become well known for her activism regarding women’s issues from her weekly columns at the Irish Examiner, to her outspoken manner online, and of course her books; where she tackles topics most would rather avoid.
Only Ever Yours tells the story of a world in which the use of birth control to maintain the “perfect body” has led to women being created rather than born naturally. The girls are put into schools where they are trained to believe that their looks and rankings will dictate their futures. There are three roles available after graduation: companion, concubines and chastities. Of course, everyone wants to be a companion to one of the rich, attractive men – known as Inheritants – who will make their choice at the ceremony.
This is not a pleasant read. To describe it as a “brilliant book that everyone should read” (which it is) almost feels like missing the point of the narrative. From the outset that is something unsettling and if you are struggling with weight issues or an eating disorder it is best to wait until you are in a very good place before reading it – which is what I did. There is overwhelming sense that something bad is going to happen if any of the characters step out of line and there were many occasions where I was holding my breath as if that would help the story in some way. I don’t normally pay attention to quotes from other authors on books as those opinions never tend to sway me towards buying a book, but Jeanette Winterson says that “O’Neill writes with a scalpel” and honestly, that could not be more true.
I did find the world confusing at first as you’re thrown in the deep end to follow Freida who is in her final year, preparing for the ceremony. The characters around her are the embodiment of everything we would deem wrong from society and their views are amplified throughout, creating a sense of disorientation when you see the extreme lengths some girls will go to in order to keep their rankings up. While pitched as a strong relationship between Freida and Isabel, their friendship is fraught for most of the book as Isabel appears to let herself go and doesn’t get punished for her actions; instead she is simply removed from the rankings. The reason for which sets your mind into the worst possible outcomes for her. The chastities in charge refer to the girls by numbers, but the girls themselves call each other by names which made it difficult to understand the intended purpose: they are stripped of their names but seem to retain them at the same time.
An obvious comparison to make is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood because they both deal with government control of women’s bodies, but it’s important to note the very big differences. In Only Ever Yours birth control is seen as a good thing, to stop pregnancy ruining your bodies (meanwhile Handmaid’s sees birth control as a bad thing) and in Handmaid’s there is a sense of hope that things could really change. There is none of that in Only Ever Yours. It is a dark, terrifying insight into what our world could be like if we don’t start tackling important issues.
I can only salute Louise O’Neill for her fantastic efforts… even if she does scare me a bit.
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