Louise O’Neill’s dystopian novel, Only Ever Yours, be warned: it will only give you odd nightmares. Indeed, odd nightmares that can not quite be described as scary, but rather, they are more unnerving. But I am sure that is what O’Neill intended to do. In a world where women are bred to adhere to men’s wants and needs, O’Neill forces us to think how far we have truly come in terms of gender equality and where, if we are not careful, the future will take us.
Sometime between ours and O’Neill’s dystopian time, a drastic rising of sea levels leads to a decrease in population and utter chaos. As order is slowly restored, female rights are abolished, forcing women to regress to their previously more orthodox roles. O’Neill’s protagonist, sixteen-year-old frieda (all female characters’ names lack capitalisation), is entering her final year at the School where, for the past twelve years, she’s been groomed to be an obedient girl. At the end of the year, she is to learn her fate: either to be a companion for a sixteen-year-old boy, a concubine, or chastity (teacher at the School).
O’Neill places her readers right in frieda’s head. Frieda’s obsession with her round thighs also becomes the reader’s obsession; her uncontrollably envious thoughts become the reader’s thoughts; and her inability to truly fit in with the other girls at the School becomes the reader’s inability. Seeing everything through her eyes reminds the reader of what lies at the root of these problems; frieda lacks all control over her life. She has been taught from the moment she was born, or rather ‘designed’, that boys don’t like fat girls, and that her happiness in life is dependent on how much said boys like her. This results in other girls being the only obstacle standing between her and the life she is meant to desire. Frieda’s ensuing anxiety spills across the pages and towards the reader, allowing the reader to be as much a part of the story as she is.
Where the novel fails is with isabel, another student at the School and frieda’s former best friend. Throughout the novel, frieda has flashbacks to their friendship. Although these flashbacks provide great insights into frieda, they form isabel into a flat, two-dimensional character. Seeing isabel through frieda’s memories only provides readers with frieda’s projection of her friend. It becomes difficult to understand the depth and the weight of their friendship when only one party is fully present and immersed in the story. It becomes even more difficult for readers to be pleased with the novel as frieda’s and isabel’s friendship is marked as a focal point.
That point aside, O’Neill’s ability to reflect our society’s fixation on distorted ideals of beauty is remarkable. The vivid descriptions of outfits, body shapes, skin tones, and facial features all work together to create a resonating novel. We live in a world with a rigid standard of beauty – a girl can’t be too tall or too short; she can’t be too fat or too skinny; she can’t be too dark or too pale.
She must adhere to all these rules and norms before she can be deemed ‘pretty.’ It is impossible to escape from and equally not want to fit into this rigid standard. Many have criticised O’Neill’s novel, claiming it lacks a satisfactory ending. But we, as a society, have yet to tackle the brutal problems of beauty O’Neill presents in her work, so how can we expect her to wrap up her novel with a pretty little bow and simply let the problems dissolve? For her to create a satisfactory ending for a work like this would be to lie. It is always better to have a truthful, albeit uncomfortable ending, over that of a satisfying lie.
Image: Pixabay – Alexvan