Oligarchy: A Novel

  • By Scarlett Thomas
  • Counterpoint
  • 208 pp.
  • Reviewed by Josh Denslow
  • January 15, 2020

After tragedy strikes an all-girls school, students come face-to-face with its secrets.

Oligarchy: A Novel

In Scarlett Thomas' Oligarchy, we are introduced to Natasha as she is sent from her home in Russia to an all-girls boarding school north of London. Then, we are introduced to her "massive thighs."

We also meet Tiffanie, her new dorm mate, who insists that "if you stand up straight with your legs together, you should be able to see three diamonds: ankle to calf; calf to knee; and then between your thighs." Natasha is relieved to discover that, despite her massive thighs, she still has the right proportions.

And then we're off, falling over ourselves to keep up with Natasha and her new friends and their body obsessions and what makes someone a plebeian and all their fad diets and hidden mobile phones and credit cards and then...deep breath...one of them dies.

What Thomas pulls off here is astounding. This is a truly funny book. It is acerbic. It is mean-spirited. It is heavy (and I don't just mean weight gain). The characters are flawed and sometimes intensely unlikable, but they are also naive and susceptible to peer pressure and scared to be different and just so crazy-believable. I was rooting for all of them to survive.

Unfortunately, Bianca does not.

When Dr. Moone summons Natasha and her friends to his office to inform them that Bianca was found in the lake, Natasha wants to laugh. "She can feel the prickle coming off the other girls as well. They all want to laugh and laugh and — Wait, no. In fact, Donya has fainted. Sin-Jin is wafting something over her that might be a paperback copy of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales."

Turns out, an eating disorder might be at the heart of Bianca's death. So the school arranges for a talk from an Instagram-famous anorexic girl who happens to have written a book about her illness. The school also arranges for every student to get a copy. This leads, as you might have guessed, to more eating disorders amongst the girls.

Then they bring in two counselors, Tony and Dominic, who encourage the girls to rate their experiences with food. One girl recounts a tale of stuffing her face while watching workout videos on YouTube and then contemplating suicide. She gives it a nine out of 10. Tony asks what would have made it a 10. "‘Well, I guess if I had killed myself?’ ‘Good,’ says Tony. ‘Who's next?’"

Thomas is a master at burrowing into everyone's insecurities. She jumps from mind to mind, unraveling the fears of students and faculty alike. Natasha and her friends may communicate in a whole new way, but the real revelation here is how much we’re all alike in our secret interior worlds.

What begins with Bianca's death slowly reveals more sinister machinations at work. Are students being coerced to become skinny? Did a teacher take compromising photos of some of them when they were passed out? What's with the creepy house where the headmaster lives? And what's at the bottom of the lake?

Natasha, plucked from a life of poverty with her mother by the oligarch father she's never met, finds herself struggling to adapt to her new life at boarding school. She only wants to use her secret mobile phone to "look at girls who are about the same shape and size as her wearing clothes she hasn't thought of wearing." Instead, she finds herself exploring the mystery of Princess Augusta who, along with her black diamond, appears in paintings all around the school.

While navigating the terrible advice she gets from her aunt in London, and after surviving a horrific stomach flu that puts the school on lockdown, Natasha emerges to find herself a detective of sorts. She seeks out a teacher who fled the school amid scandal and the brother of the dead Bianca. She finds some answers, but as with everything in life, she has to determine the meaning herself.

If I were sitting with the school counselors, I could recount many affecting moments in this novel. Small cruelties. Astonishing kindnesses. I might point directly to the scene in which one of Natasha's friends is only noticed by boys when she loses weight. Or that moment when the teacher who thought he'd left the school behind forever opens his door to find a group of teenage girls looking to him for answers.

Or, especially, later, when Natasha realizes there’s little distinction between having everything and having nothing if she can’t make her own choices.

Josh Denslow is the author of the collection Not Everyone Is Special which arrived early last year from 7.13 Books.

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