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Dieting to death: a black comedy of boarding school life

Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas reviewed

November 7, 2019

1:05 PM

7 November 2019

1:05 PM

Oligarchy Scarlett Thomas

Canongate, pp.224, $15.23

It sounds in bad taste, but Scarlett Thomas has written a riotously enjoyable novel about a boarding school full of girls with eating disorders. It’s not that Thomas doesn’t take eating disorders seriously; she takes them so seriously that one of the girls dies. But there are few more vivaciously original novelists around today, and surely none of them is having as much fun while making serious points. Elsewhere, Thomas has written compellingly about her own orthorexia (or obsessive desire to control her diet); but this doesn’t mean that she is above lampooning the hysterical pronouncements of the diet-obsessed — not least that fruit, unless you pick it in the wild yourself, contains so much sugar that you may as well eat Haribo, which is nicer, after all.

She is quite brilliant on the preoccupations of adolescent girls. Natasha, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, is given a new mobile phone:

‘The phone has been set up so its owner can look at literally anything: beheadings, anal penetration, how to make bombs. Not that Natasha would want to look at those things, of course. She really only wants to look at girls who are about the same shape and size as her wearing clothes she hasn’t thought of wearing.’

After a girl dies at the school, a pair of Scottish men — Tony and Dominic — are dispatched to rather aggressively fix the rest of the girls. But as the narrator reflects: ‘Where do you even get two therapists who look so much like pedophiles?’ The girls inevitably do their best to find something sexy about them but ‘there is literally nothing, which is a shame’ — revealing so much about the way young women practice, or at least anticipate, their own sexuality.

Thomas displays untrammeled delight in language, observing that in Natasha’s desire to police the boundaries of her own body by controlling what she drinks, if not eats, she ‘wants to be pure inside, like she used to be. Pure and slight like a backslash.’

This kind of jouissance can appear artless; but of course it can’t be, and there is an intrigue over the death of the girls’ classmate which provides a plot. There have been many other notable novels about schools, not least Kazuo Ishiguro’s haunting Never Let Me Go, but there has been none so entertaining since Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the US edition here.


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