Upon her arrival at an English boarding school, Natalya notes being instructed to make herself known as Natasha, altered even further to Tash as the novel progresses, to slot more easily into the exclusive social circles of the elite. She is Russian, of poor origins, Jewish, and, worst of all, new money. This must all be obscured as effectively as possible if she is to survive, she is told. It is an obligatory shedding of identity, brought about by the stranger that is Natalya’s oligarch father entering her life after fifteen years to drag her out of poverty. She is forced into wealth, into Englishness, buttoned into a monkey suit which she barely knows how to move in. Not that it matters; the girls all end up speaking French to each other anyway.
At first, Oligarchy appears only to be a deliciously sharp comedy. Thomas’ lively prose encapsulates that combination of wily witticisms and crippling doubts relating to self-image so integral to the teenager. Tash is surrounded by her own little group of endearing friends: Tiffanie, who is so effortlessly glamorous with her perfect body and French je ne sais quoi that her peers all find themselves mirroring her, Rachel, overweight and moustachioed, and Bianca, the desperately thin ballerina who sneakily reads Fanny Hill under the covers at night. Tash herself is something of a blank, content to think only of horses, and much of her character is mimetic of the other girls. To these girls, money, beauty, and glamour are personality traits, and an absolutely integral element of that beauty is thinness. Disordered eating spreads its way through the flock of green uniforms like a mist: calories are counted, weekly diet plans are crafted by each individual and passed around, desserts are left or even given to other girls in an act of malicious competition. Girls who are found to be on the more extreme end of this spectrum are summoned by the headmaster for private lessons, which only serve to make matters worse – he reads to them from Great Expectations, and the girls become so entranced with Estella that they are encouraged even further in their pursuit of ultimate beauty.
Life goes on. The girls keep finding new ways of consuming less, keep sneaking off campus and into the village, keep buying expensive things, keep trying to find new ways to bypass the school’s internet restrictions to view pornography. Then one of the students go missing. Shortly after, a teacher is found dead. A sickness bug which ravages the school closes it down, but the two prior instances do not, because they are viewed as self-inflicted. The comedy remains, but it is written by progressively more gnarled hands.
Tash makes for a compelling protagonist throughout the intrigue that follows. Her observations are harsh, even cruel, and information crucial to the plot is retained from the reader for as long as possible in order to be revealed more organically through dialogue. This is a far more satisfying way to receive clues than if they were merely drip-fed to us. Her perspective also gives the reader a chance to experience an environment other than the school, so plagued by body obsession that scales are locked away in cupboards, when she leaves to visit her cosmopolitan Aunt Sonja. Sonja encourages Tash to engage with the world more critically, and to question the goings on at her school. We soon realise, of course, that Sonja is just as much of a slave to imitative glamour as the schoolgirls are.
Thomas, drawing on her own experience with disordered eating, merges the terror of girls craving hip bones that jut out “like a cowboy’s thumbs” with the tedium of calorie counting and food regulation. Much has been made of the former, with its easily displayed body horror, but people can be quick to tire of the constant presence of lists and numbers and weights and diet plans. At least, that is one criticism which I found while browsing other reviews of Oligarchy. Personally, I’m glad Thomas included it. Obsessive regimentation is just as key an element of disordered eating as the physical alterations, and one which is far more normalised than we care to admit. The lists are meant to be exhausting to read, precisely because they are exhausting to create and follow.
This book is Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging after a line of coke and a litre of mango vodka. It revels in its own plush darkness, glittering like the black diamond allegedly lying at the bottom of the school’s lake, so romanticised by the girls. Jon Gray’s cover is as gorgeous as the words within – Scarlett Thomas’ unique phraseology carries some truly blistering sentences, ones which elicit that simultaneously appalled and impressed gasping laugh. A fiercely compact work, bursting with intelligence.
Any Cop?: I read Oligarchy on a particularly unpleasant plane journey. It wasn’t turbulent, but the descent was so fast that I felt desperately travel sick – my partner pointed out the paper bag on the back of the seat in front twice. Like many people, my travel sickness is worsened considerably when I read. I kept reading. There’s your endorsement.