REVIEW: Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

Over the next ten weeks I will be reading and reviewing the shortlisted books for the inaugural YA Book Prize. I’m thrilled that the diverse and thriving UK YA scene is being celebrated. I’m also thrilled that Larry isn’t going to be in season 3 of Orange is the New Black.

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Only Ever Yours is the story of one girl’s short life in a patriarchal dystopia. freida, like every other girl in her world, was created to be as close to perfection as possible, and raised to strive towards an unreachable ideal. After the collapse of society, the world has been rebuilt to serve man’s every need artificially – and so have women. freida’s time at school is for the express purpose of making her fit to be a companion to one of the powerful men in the outside world. She must be beautiful, and biddable, or she will be doomed to life as a concubine or a chastity. Final year is going well for freida, but then there’s the problem of her best friend isabel, on a path of self-destruction…

Only Ever Yours is the best book I’ve read so far this year. It left me shaken. I’ve seen it described elsewhere as a nightmare, and can think of no better description. The first person present prose is arresting and immediate, and freida’s voice, riven with anxieties and inanities, draws you in to this world. The horror is ramped up subtly throughout the book, with the things freida and the other girls have to suffer becoming harder and harder to stomach. There are sequences in which freida’s addiction to sedatives makes her hallucinate, and that surreal tinge never really leaves the prose. The reader is drawn along with the characters as a lamb to slaughter. I could not stop thinking about this book. Even if it was closed, in a different room, it was haunting me. And the ending did not bring relief.

It’s unavoidably political: the world of Only Ever Yours is twisted, but it takes place in what is recognisably the near future, and it’s a future that looks incredibly bleak for women. O’Neill cleverly takes the tropes already rife in our media, and runs with them to very dark places. The cover says it all, really, with its familiar doll face, the girl-as-object, on a stark black background. This is a world that pits girls against each other for the enviable role of wife/companion/slave. There is no room in this world for babies born imperfect, or weight gain, friendships, or lesbian relationships. Only Ever Yours is a furious criticism of a culture that tries to commodify female bodies at every opportunity. It exposes the toxicity of patriarchal norms, and how they harm even those they are meant to serve. I was struck by how Darwin’s storyline also factored into this – the whole novel is about how women suffer under a misogynistic regime, but the men don’t escape undamaged either.

Only Ever Yours is powerful and shocking, and so good it deserves to transcend the YA label and make it onto everyone’s lists of favourite life-ruining novels. Don’t expect a comfort read. Do expect to be blown away.

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