About a year ago, I discovered the author Louise O’Neill. Her books, like Only Ever Yours, have become some of my favourites, and I’d like to share why — not only because they’re addictively good, but because of their importance.
Only Ever Yours is set in a dystopian world where it has become impossible for women to be naturally conceived. To prevent human extinction, genetically engineered women have been created who are able to conceive male children. However, these genetically engineered women are seen as state property, and therefore of extremely low status. Nobody — themselves included — sees them as citizens, second-class or otherwise. They’re not even graced with capital letters at the start of their names.
Until sixteen (the marriageable age, when they meet the boys they’ve been made for), these women are reared in a “School” where the lessons include Beauty Therapy and Comparison Studies. For most of the girls, the ultimate aim is to be chosen as a companion (effectively, a wife). If they’re not chosen, they will be made either chastities (women who have been deemed unable to please a man, and who therefore work forever in the School) or concubines. Because of the limited spaces available, the girls are set against each other. They’re encouraged to tear each other down.
The thing that made this book so compelling for me was that, though it was set in a dystopian future, everything in it was based on reality. The characters are subjected to more extreme versions of the pressure that people — especially women — face because of gender roles today. The girls are told — by the chastities, their guardians, as well as by each other and the media — that looks are all that matter, but “there is always room for improvement.” They will never, ever be good enough. They are encouraged to starve themselves, and their weight is aggressively monitored. A good girl is “always happy-go-lucky”; hysterics or, worse still, tears are forbidden. To be on your period is seen as the most shameful thing possible (plus, in this world, it’s referred to as “womenstruation,” subtly reminding us that this shameful thing belongs to women only).
Any of that sound familiar?
The thing is, this book describes the result of only a slight shift in mindset: the shift from implied to enforced, from internalised sexism to sexism openly expressed. It’s not a drastic change in thinking, but the results for everyone involved (including the men) are catastrophic.
One thing that could have felt more 3D for me was the protagonist. frieda demonstrated well the pressure and distress of her environment, but I felt that she served more as a vessel for these emotions than as a character. That said, I felt it was impossible for her personality given the life she was living. The desperation for approval and validation and the constant trying to be what everyone told her to be left no room for anything else.
This book will create conversations. This book will make you think. It will make you uncomfortable. It will make you mouth, Yes, I feel that too. It will take the little things that niggle in the back of your mind and show why they are valid problems, not to be dismissed.
I think you need to read it.
Carol McGill lives in Dublin, where she makes to-do lists and then avoids doing things. However, she does occasionally have productive periods which result in things being written. She has found writing is an excellent way to procrastinate from schoolwork, which has increased drastically in recent times.
Read her blog here.