Scarlett Thomas’s tenth novel, Oligarchy—a dark and disturbing mix of social satire, mystery, and fairytale—follows the exploits of six teenaged girls over the course of a year at an isolated and unnamed English boarding school. Thomas’s unsparing and visceral portrayal of their lives and dangerous obsessions, while not sympathetic, is penetrating and perhaps for some readers even triggering.
Thomas establishes the antiquated boarding school (gasp: WiFi is available only one hour a day!) as a gothic setting for her characters to inhabit: “Outside the windows is a dark silence, the dark silence of English villages in autumn, the barest sound of leaves fluttering to the ground and the last wasps sucking out the insides of the last plums, and mysteries in the depths beyond the gloom.” There is even an eerie school mascot of sorts known as the White Lady or Princess Augusta, whose picture hangs everywhere in the school, and whose unlikely story of a doomed love affair with a commoner, ruination at the hands of a sultan, and drowning in the campus lake, is embraced as true by the girls.
In a nod to the familiar motif of the damsel in distress trapped in the tower, the six girls—Tiffanie, Lissa, Donya, Rachel, Bianca, and narrator Tash—are housed in two dorms “stuck together out of the way, in one of the old turrets.” Tash wonders early in the novel “if they were put here for some deliberate reason, to make them feel different from everyone else: to make them go bad.” And, like apples rotting, bad they do indeed go.
The bad apples all come from privileged backgrounds (Tash is herself the daughter of a mysterious and perpetually absent Russian oligarch). They sport high-end designer labels, diamond jewelry, black Amex cards, and a shamelessly classist and disparaging attitude about the so-called village “plebs.” And, as the school year gets underway, so too do the extreme diets concocted by each of the girls. Fixated on appearance, they become dogged in their determination to lose weight, Rachel especially. Her knowledge of nutrition is a laughable take on recent fad diets:
“White flour is made of all the unhealthiest bits of wheat, which has in any case been genetically modified to be addictive, like opium…Refined flours get caught in the little thingummies in your gut and irritate them and then your gut gets so inflamed it rips apart and bits of white flour go zooming around in your actual blood and can even make you die or catch schizophrenia. The white sauce is made from dairy, which means the bloody pus of enslaved cows are forcefully impregnated and have their babies taken away. Dairy gives you spots and makes you fat because it isn’t designed to be eaten by adult humans. It gives you mucus, thick ropes of it coming out of your nose and sometimes going into your brain. You can drown in your own mucus, and it will serve you right.”
As amusing as such passages in the novel are, there is nothing funny about Thomas’s grim depiction of these girls progressively forgoing food, developing eating disorders, and existing like “hungry ghosts flickering on the edge of this world.”
Even more troublesome is that—through their own example or shocking ignorance—the adults in their lives, so thoroughly out of touch with their teenaged charges, make matters much worse. Tash’s Aunt Sonja, herself a slave to image, encourages her to focus on keeping her beauty at all costs and offers her questionable advice on diet. The girls’ biology teacher, Miss White, assigns them experiments calculating BMI that require them to weigh themselves and report their body fat percentage. The history teacher, Mr. Hendrix, has the girls complete a slam book with photos of each girl to send to the neighboring boys’ school, effectively “a sex catalogue.” And when school officials attempt to mitigate the growing “outbreak of anorexia,” their solution is to bring in utterly unsuitable speakers to warn the girls of the dangers of eating disorders. Most disturbing is the not-so-formerly anorexic Anastasia (pun intended) whose talk devolves into a slideshow of #thinspiration.
Oligarchy would succeed as a novel on the intellectual merit alone of the interplay between the girls’ class privilege and an ultimately deadly preoccupation with image, but Thomas makes the curious decision to add an element of mystery to the story involving the school’s headmaster that feels incongruous and hurried, too easily explaining away the darkness at the heart of the book and denying a satisfying resolution to any of the girls’ predicaments. In the end, despite a wealth of witty and perspicacious turns of phrase, the novel feels uncertain of its purpose and stops just short of its mark.
By Scarlett Thomas
Published January 14, 2020
Dana Hansen is a writer, editor, reviewer, and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, Literary Review of Canada, The Winnipeg Review, France’s Books magazine, Australia's Westerley magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Waterdown, Ontario, and is the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Review of Books.