Congratulations, Louise O’Neill – you managed to create a dystopian future even more horrifying and chauvinistic than the one in Margaret Atwood’s iconic The Handmaid’s Tale. That took talent. And a dark, twisted mind.
Sometime in the nearish future (near enough I could visualise a timeline) hormone therapy meant girls have been bred out, because who wants a girl when you can have a boy? Except, didn’t think that through didja, because now there are no women left to have boys with. So girls are genetically engineered and for sixteen years, follow strict beauty and health regimes to better their chances of attracting the right partner. Each year, three times as many girls are bred as boys were born, so the boys can have their choice and the left over girls can just… fend for themselves, I guess. One third become ‘companions’ (like wives, except closer to chattel, and it has the bonus of continuing with O’Neill’s ‘c’ theme) one third become concubines (which frankly, sounded like the best option, with some element of agency, relatively speaking) and one third become chastities, which is like a teaching nun, but with more horrific implications, to raise the next group of girls.
This is about as pleasant as it sounds.
Naturally, depending on how high the boys rank, they get their first pick of girl. Towards the end of their sixteenth year, they start the selection process with which boys they will end up with, and who ends up a concubine or chastity. The stress these girls are under to maintain an ideal weight, to always appear happy, so they might attract a man who wants her as his companion, is palpable. The behaviour of some of the boys towards the girls is revolting, as you would expect from a society that rewards even the most sub-par of boys with his choice of women to be his slave. Also palpable is the resentment some of the lower-ranking boys that they never get their ‘pick’ of the most beautiful girls, a sentiment reminiscent of the incel movement, despite predating it (or at least its current incarnation).
The story centers around Freida and her bff Isabel. Freida and Isabel used to be the highest-ranking girls in their class, but as their final year starts, Isabel has become more withdrawn, gaining weight, looking unappealing, while the stress of the situation is causing Freida to slip down the rankings herself. The inclusion of Darwin, the good looking, well spoken son of a high-ranking man (I assume Darwin is a dig at evolutionary theory?) as one of the available boys throws the thirty women into a spin of even greater competition with one another. He initially seems to favour Freida, but of course, O’Neill wouldn’t have earned her reputation as the second coming of Atwood had there been a happy ending.
My one critique is that Freida’s actions were her downfall, and entirely preventable, within the context that no-one should be expected to perform under those conditions, of course. Her inability to keep a confidence and her desire to be friends with a reptile of a mean girl are her undoing, and I often wanted to scream at her idiocy. I would have liked that better explained by stress or a desire to be liked; instead, she came across as someone who was so close to being one of the most powerful women in the land, albeit a land which placed very little value on women, and blew it by her inability to keep her mouth shut.
They get back to Isabel, and her story initially has a hope spot, then descends into tragedy, with hints of paedophilia and the only escape she had. Except for the introduction of Darwin, and Isabel’s hope spot, both of whom serve to make things even worse in the end, this book is an unrelenting bag of horror and chauvinism, all the worse for how well O’Neill portrays it. There are references, such as Isabel’s supply of gifts to Freida that she (Isabel) hates and wants to offload, that seem to be throwaway lines but actually make a lot of sense at the end, that would be worth rereading the book for, if not for how gut-wrenching the book is. It’s not as graphic as Handmaid’s Tale (another book I could never reread) but it is more hopeless. It’s worth a read if you an stomach it, but not something many of us could reread, I suspect.