Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas
Oligarchy is a story about the very special hell of being a teenage girl.
It follows Tash, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, who is sent to an English boarding school. She falls in with the other girls’ obsessions over weight, life, social media, and extreme dieting, but running through the middle of what passes for normal life is a lost black jewel, a drowned foreign princess, and schoolgirls going mysteriously missing.
This was a weird, bleak, hilarious, outrageous book. The setting is a mixture of familiar and alien. The culture of the boarding school, with its strange rituals and rules and slang, may only be familiar to a small percentage of the readership, but the culture of being a teenage girl is uncomfortably, brilliantly familiar. The book vividly evokes the weird teenage dichotomy of being very knowledgeable about some things and very ignorant about others. The girls’ obsession with body image spins on a hair between tragedy and comedy; one moment it’s clear and dramatic how unhealthy and warped their worldview is, and the next moment it’s still tragic but also incredibly funny. It’s a fine line, but Scarlett Thomas does the hard thing of making a teenage narrative feel real without being insufferable, and making a story about eating disorders funny without undermining their power.
Tash is the protagonist, but the overall effect is more of a Greek chorus with almost a third-person narrative. There are sections just about Tash’s story, but for large parts of the novel her voice seems to stand for all the girls, and her story becomes a part of the whole school’s experience. Even though I like a very strong, intimate first-person narrative, this structure still worked really well for me, reminding me of books like The Virgin Suicides and Two Boys Kissing.
The only weak part of this book for me (Spoiler alert!) was the ending, which I felt was a little anticlimactic. The story progresses with a steady even pace before suddenly just ending, and I felt there could have been more of a dramatic denouement, or just a clearer build-up to the final scenes. However, Oligarchy is still a sharp, entertaining, insightful, very funny read.
© 2020 Alice Olivia Scarlett
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.