Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

When I was eighteen, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and it blew the bloody doors off my intellectual and emotional prison and opened up a whole new world of feminist consciousness. It changed my life. Only Ever Yours is the only book since that has repeated that moment in time in my personal history – and I think every young woman should read it. It’s searing, brutal and undeniably honest, and whilst set in a future dystopia, just like Atwood’s novel it’s so woven from real events and behaviours it lays all society’s current failings bare for all to see.

OnlyEverYours

frieda is sixteen, and has spent her entire life in the School, run by the chastities. All the girls are obsessed by their appearance – but in this future, the School enforces that obsession, by daily weigh-ins, a ranking system and lessons where the girls’ bodies are ruthlessly compared to those of their peers. Brainwashed since birth, the girls face a future either as companions – wives to rich men – or concubines. As the day of the Ceremony inexorably draws near, the day when their future role will be assigned to them, their competitiveness reaches fever pitch. But frieda is slowly failing, knocked out of orbit as one of the most highly ranked girls, by her former best friend isabel. Formerly #1, or queen bee, isabel seems to be on self-destruct, and as frieda tries to both help isabel and simultaneously distance herself from her, she’s making mistakes and getting noticed in the wrong ways. The consequences will be shattering.

This novel is brutal from the first page, and while the true horrors of their adult lives are only suggested, never fully revealed, O’Neill creates a very visceral sense of a claustrophobic community where there is truly no way out. Chickens get a taste of your meat girl… Atwood’s heroines were often passively complicit in their oppression, and in O’Neill’s novel, the ways in which women betray each other on a daily basis, thus enabling the power of the patriarchy to be maintained, are searingly dissected. frieda is not your average heroine either, not always sympathetic, not always likeable. And where other novels may have taken the romantic option (i.e. your knight in shining armour will rescue you), O’Neill plays it true to the end, in a truly haunting, terrible climax.

There is so much texture to this book, so much to devour and debate, so many clever allusions, all within a compelling plot populated by vivid characters. It’s one of the most challenging Young Adult books I’ve read and certainly has the power to awaken feminist consciousness in teenage girls (and women), changing lives in the process. I actually think it’s better than The Handmaid’s Tale – more cutting, more graphic, and more unflinching in it’s exposure of female relationships. Terrifying and compulsive, Only Ever Yours takes it’s place on my shelf of books that change your life. Superb.

Rating: *****

riverrun, 2015, ISBN 9781784294007

 

The Stopped Heart by Julie Myerson

This is a novel I’d been eagerly anticipating reading and it didn’t disappoint! In fact, I would say that this is Myerson’s best novel so far. It’s a harrowing, but beautifully told, tale of loss, grief and evil.

Mary and her husband Graham buy an old farmhouse in rural Suffolk – it’s a new start, an attempt to save their marriage, after the tragic deaths of their daughters. But making space in their lives for new friends is not easy – even when they are so easy-going and understanding as Eddie and Deborah. And for Mary, there’s a strange undercurrent in their new home, an awareness of something other. Could it be a ghost?

A hundred years ago, the farmhouse was home to Eliza and her large family. One night, during a terrible storm, a stranger arrives seeking help and the family take him in. It’s not long before James has his feet well under the table and his relationship with teenage Eliza evolves into something sinister. Just who is he really, and what does he want?

Sometimes in novels that are split between two different times or narrators, you end up favoring one over the other. But not so in this case – the two stories are woven together so assuredly they are like the two sides of the heart in question, and that it will be stopped is painfully evident as the narrative progresses. What Myerson does is surprise you – this is not just a story about evil acts and the grief they beget, but also about the hope that comes in the wake of the storm. She tells you that it is possible to heal, and that healing might come about in a totally unexpected way. The story is harrowing; she does not flinch from tackling very painful and disturbing subjects, but her prose is so beautiful, so insightful, she carries you along the darkest path always with a glimmer of light.

StoppedHeart

This  is a stunning read. My Mum has just returned my copy and said she couldn’t put it down; we had both been affected by the same particular moments in the narrative, and the story will stay with us both for a very long time.

Jonathan Cape, 2016, ISBN 9780224102490

Rating: *****