I first learned about Louise O'Neill's debut novel, Only Ever Yours, after it won the UK YA Book Prize last month. The book has been described by some parts of the media as a feminist dystopia, and by others as a satire, playing on the way young women are judged on their looks. Of course, I had to check it out.
Generally speaking, young adult dystopias tell the stories of teenagers triumphing over oppression. Despite their bleak exterior, they're self-affirming stories about young people's abilities to determine their own futures, even against impossible odds, and the dystopian worlds themselves are often little more than a backdrop for the protagonist's self-discovery. This stands in stark contrast to more traditional dystopia, where the society itself is the main focus and fighting against it is futile. 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale may make us think, but they certainly don't make us hope.
Only Ever Yours is therefore simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. You'll find no hope in this book, no protagonist fighting the system, no sense that the world could be made right if only someone would speak out. The story is all about the setting, a Handmaid's Tale-esque world in which girls are trained to be "companions" or "courtesans," and where their entire fate rests on their ability to be attractive to men. Locked up inside a school, taught how to please, never allowed to develop identities of their own, the girls fight to be the most appealing or face obsoleteness.
As all good dystopia should, Only Ever Yours magnifies elements of our own society to show its twisted nature. Throughout the novel, which follows 16 year old Freida in her final year of school as she fights to be chosen as a "companion," we see critiques of body image, weight obsession, brains vs beauty, slut shaming, the virgin/whore dichotomy, and, of course, the overall idea that a girl's sole purpose should be to be pleasing to men.
Unfortunately, the novel's setting feels utterly detached from our own world, and so its critiques don't pack the punch that they should. There's little sense of this could happen, and so its invocation of familiar technologies and fears sometimes feels too heavy handed. The messages are important, the prose inherently readable, but the story itself lacks subtlety. It's utterly direct in addressing every modern trend it wants to skewer, from social media and cyberbullying to "fat foods" vs "good girl foods." Some readers will find this a perfect, fearless approach, but I longed for something a little more imaginative, something that invoked echoes of our society without hitting the bullseye every time.
That said, Only Ever Yours is worth a read. Its approach is unflinchingly feminist, its female characters manage to be simultaneously awful and sympathetic, and it's definitely the sort of book that demands to be read in one go. It's not the world's most original or most thought-provoking dystopia, but it brings something new to the table in YA, and so it's well-worth trying out.