Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas

Review by Annabel, 4 February 2020

Oligarchy is Thomas’s first adult novel for a few years; lately she has written three well-received children’s books, but is now back with one for grown-ups – or is it? Oligarchy is set in a boarding school for girls, its protagonists are a group of teenaged pupils, but while this novel may outwardly masquerade as being for young adults, it is anything but. More on that later.

Natalya, known as Natasha or Tash, is fifteen, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, and she is starting in Y11 at the unnamed boarding school, which is in deepest Hertfordshire, between Stevenage and Cambridge. The school’s hallway is dominated by a portrait of the White Lady, who is said to haunt the school. The White Lady is Princess Augusta, who founded the school and, significantly, she is pictured wearing a large black diamond jewel. Something about the location of this fictional school rang a bell with me – after all, I used to live in Stevenage. It didn’t take much digging to find that there is a day/boarding school for girls, (now going co-ed), outside the nearby town of Hitchin called Princess Helena College (PHC). It was founded by Princess Augusta, (granddaughter of George III, and grandmother of Victoria) but didn’t relocate from London to the Hertfordshire countryside until 1935. I can only assume that the current real school was the ‘model’ for that in the novel, and indeed further research confirmed that Scarlett Thomas was a boarder at PHC. The real Princess Augusta lived until she was 94, the last living English Hanoverian, whereas Thomas’s Augusta drowns in the school’s lake for the love of a commoner, as Tash soon discovers when she arrives.

Tash shares the dorms with Tiffanie who is French, Bianca who is ‘absurdly spindly’, Rachel who is ‘huge and doughy’, Donya and Lissa who is ‘sort of greasy all over’. With WiFi only on for one measly hour per evening, the girls are forced to make their own entertainment, except for riding lessons on Sunday mornings.

On Monday everyone starts a new diet. It’s Lissa’s invention.

The diet is this: wholewheat bread and Sandwich Spread only. No butter. Vegetables are allowed but no fruit. And no potatoes. Natasha has never had Sandwich Spread. It’s English and gross, like cold sick.

The direction in which we’re going is now obvious; the major theme of this novel is eating disorders and anxiety about body-image. When Bianca dies, it is assumed that anorexia and bulimia is the cause, but Tash thinks there is more to it than this. She’s seen the way that certain teachers act, and the way the Headmaster gives special extra lessons to a select few girls. There is a mystery to be solved.

As soon as Bianca is gone, another girl steps up to the plate to become the model for leanness. Rachel is now determined to transform herself and starts exercising, starving, holding a torch for the dead girl. Although Thomas has written the novel as a black comedy, upon reflection it is quite a cruel one. Back in 2015, Thomas wrote in the Guardian of her own addiction to fitness, how it made her feel ill and stressed, aided and abetted by feedback from her devices and apps on steps and diet. She writes from experience, if not directly of anorexia or bulimia, but of that need for the endorphins from exercise.

Thank goodness for Aunt Sonja, an expert in cyber-security and lover of the finer things in life, with whom Tash spends her holidays in London. Sonja is a wonderful character; an aesthete, an ascetic, but always with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. She is full of advice for Tash:

‘Have you had a lesbian experience?’

More blushing. ‘No.’

‘Do it. It’s underrated. But not with someone from school you have to see every day. I’ll call someone. Someone discreet.’

‘Nono. You really don’t have to. Please. I’m—’

‘Look at your beautiful skin . . . I didn’t appreciate my skin when I was your age.’

A pause to finish digesting the lesbian comment. For it to be processed and removed.

There are other funny moments, such as their field trip to Stevenage. Like Oligarchy’s geography teacher Mr Hendrix, I have lived there; an unloved new town, full of concrete, roundabouts, council housing and commuters. The combination of posh girls with clipboards and the locals is hilarious. As is Tiffanie’s occasional ‘Allo ‘Allo! style Franglais – her parents are ‘rich together in bonking.’

As a satire on money and class, boarding school and eating disorders, this novel works well if being rather close to the bone! The mystery felt a little tacked on in comparison, and the pair of male counsellors sent in to talk to the girls after Bianca’s death were bizarre. However, there was enough in this novel’s main themes, together with my prior knowledge of the area to make it an interesting and engaging read, if challenging on the body image front.

Did it manage to stay out of YA territory? It is difficult to write for adults using a young protagonist, but Thomas has captured the girls’ preoccupations and conversation well, although giving us the story only through Tash’s fifteen-year-old outsider point of view, it did veer close at times, but due to the subject matter I wouldn’t recommend this book for younger readers. The teachers didn’t get much of a look in, being relegated to supporting characters for the most part. However, like the black jewel on the cover (which looked like a prickly cactus to me), whenever Aunt Sonja is on the page, this book sparkled!

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and is glad she didn’t go to boarding school.

Scarlett Thomas, Oligarchy (Canongate, 2019), 978-1786897794, 212pp., hardback.

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2 thoughts on “Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas

  1. My Middle Child is a huge fan of Thomas, but I haven’t heard what she thinks of this yet. I suspect the YA elements might make it a bridge too far for me! 😀

    • It’s an adult book, not YA – it just occasionally veers towards YA territory, but the subject matter isn’t for body-conscious teens.

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