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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Oligarchy

by
Scarlett Thomas


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Oligarchy



Title: Oligarchy
Author: Scarlett Thomas
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019
Length: 208 pages
Availability: Oligarchy - US
Oligarchy - UK
Oligarchy - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, sharp story, but a little thin (no pun intended)

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian B- 13/11/2019 R.L.Cosslett
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 26/1/2020 Lydia Millet
The Observer A 10/11/2019 Bidisha
The Spectator A 9/11/2019 A.Peake-Tomkinson
The Washington Post . 13/1/2020 Bethanne Patrick


  From the Reviews:
  • "At first it's great fun, a knowing satire of British private schoolgirls, their snobberies and obsessions, and especially their body-image anxieties (.....) Unfortunately, it doesn't feel as though the writer is invested enough in her characters or the novel's various narrative strands to really hold it together" - Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, The Guardian

  • "Thomas's humor has a sharp, rhythmic perfection. Her prose is fast-thinking, entertaining and punchy, her dialogue fully authentic without sinking into the tedium of real-life conversation. Oligarchy is a study in obsessiveness pinned to a vague, whodunit structure we don't really need, with a couple of barely felt deaths thrown in. But in Thomas's hands we don't care" - Lydia Millet, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Scarlett Thomas's latest novel is a fast, fizzy read. (...) Thomas is satirically attuned to the intricate frustration of teen life, the ignoble obsessions of puerile minds and the speed at which hygiene, decorum and false pretences vanish in a single-sex boarding institution. This makes for an entertaining, irreverent and wrong-hilarious read. (...) When Thomas slows down for a moment I am reminded how excellent her dialogue is. She expertly conveys the complexities of character through natural speech (.....) Despite the occasional spangles of darkness, this is hugely enjoyable." - Bidisha, The Observer

  • "It sounds in bad taste, but Scarlett Thomas has written a riotously enjoyable novel about a boarding school full of girls with eating disorders. (...) Thomas displays untrammelled delight in language (.....) 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." - Alex Peake-Tomkinson, The Spectator

  • "(A) strange but urgent glimpse into society's often conflicting expectations of girls." - Bethanne Patrick, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Oligarchy centers on fifteen-year-old Natalya -- called by everyone either Natasha or simply Tash --, a Russian girl whose father has made a lot of money and taken a bit of interest in the daughter he barely knows, arranging this opportunity for her, to attend a fairly expensive (but not quite top-tier) English boarding school. He provides what she needs -- at least materially, including a black Amex card and a 5G-ready iPhone -- but he isn't really a presence in her life (and never has been, only even finding her a year earlier); she never sees and practically never hears from him. But he offers a way out, an escape from a dreary life in Russia and her mother -- whom she seems to have no difficulty leaving behind. The only family she is really in contact with once abroad is her father's sister, glamorous and wealthy Aunt Sonja, who lives in London -- and whom Natasha had never met before coming to England.
       Oligarchy is a (boarding-)school-novel, Thomas presenting a broad-brush portrait of this environment and the girls that inhabit it. Academics are incidental. What Thomas focuses on is the uncertainty of these girls in the middle of adolescence, confused and uncertain about adulthood, mature in some ways but also still very much unknowing. Sex and their ignorance of it figure prominently, but their central fixation is on their weight and appearance. They obsess about food consumption -- calorie-counting and dieting --, and the pack mentality sees them all joining in with one faddish approach to eating after another; unsurprisingly: "90 per cent of the school has some sort of eating disorder".
       The teachers and the headmaster hardly seem equipped to handle the girls, much lesss their problems -- specifically this problem. Two experts are called in to tackle the issue, Tony and Dominic, but they're odd men out, too -- "The eating-disorder men look like criminals" -- while the teacher who takes over teaching biology, Mrs. White, less than helpfully jumps straight into her new class proposing:

Why don't we look at BMI ? Body Mass Index. We can design some experiments. I'll get the scales.
       Tragedy strikes, first in the apparent suicide of one of Natasha's classmates, Bianca, then with the death of a teacher. The circumstances are a bit suspicious -- as is the handling of the cases, and how they are presented to the girls -- and Natasha, in particular, grows increasingly suspicious about what might have happened. Oligarchy is then also a bit of a mystery-story -- though mostly the mystery is relegated to the sidelines, with relatively little sense of urgency about it, or solving it.
       In a way, this is also realistic, appropriate in a setting dominated by self-obsessed teenage girls who can't really conceive of much beyond their own very limited world (and, at school, with limited WiFi -- much less exposure to much of the outside world -- they really are in a very self-absorbed (and absorbing) cocoon). Appropriately, too, for a novel focused so closely on food and calories, and the frustrations of trying to take off weight, it is marked by absences and voids (which are, themselves, fairly empty): Natasha's parents are distant and (literally) out of touch characters, for example, but Natasha hardly seems to mind (beyond a sort of longing to get some connection with her father, an almost complete mystery man to her) -- and most of the characters barely have any identity of their own. Thomas doesn't flesh many out: typically, one girl is referred to simply (and repeatedly) as: "Becky with the bad hair"; there's little to another -- Tiffanie -- beyond how she mangles the language with her French pronunciation -- and that's still more than there is to most of the others. It reflects the setting, and the characters' ages -- the girls are an almost amorphous mass, with an overlap of identity; they are individually unformed. Even Natasha, the only one of the girls really presented in closer detail -- since the story is seen basically through her experiences -- is constantly unsure, of herself and of most everything around her. The portrait of the school is a sharp but not sharply delineated one -- much like a looking-back, from decades on, the remaining impressions deep but with a vagueness to them, identities blurring -- so also, for example, with the 'crushlets', "a younger girl who wants to be you" who here barely exist beyond as a type and class.
       There are adults who offer glimpses of the complexities of the real world, notably teacher Mr Hendrix, whom the girls eventually go to seeking answers and advice (and not getting exactly the reaction they hoped for), as well as the confident, somewhat mysterious and surprising Aunt Sonja, who tries to teach Natasha about life. And the resolution does then also offer some unexpected insights into damaged adult ways for the girls -- along with neat closure, of sorts.
       In its broad, quick strokes of presenting adolescent girls' lives, Oligarchy presents a quite convincing if somewhat limited portrait; the (school-)year-in-the-life is also just very much a slice of life (or rather, those lives), and quite a bit feels missing -- not least in Natasha's own background; it is very much a story of the moment -- a dramatic year in Natasha's life, to say the least, but still -- and not (much) more. The deaths, in particular, also feel underdeveloped and examined; there are, ultimately explanations for these, but it's hard to believe they wouldn't have weighed heavier on the other characters (though some small touches, like the girls apparently not changing Bianca's pillowcase after her death, so that it still holds: "pale fragments of a dead girl").
       There's some appeal to Thomas' practically under- (and, in many instances, even un)-stated approach, reflecting how children often accept and deal with changed circumstances, in their lives and around them, without much fuss or thought, and the story moves briskly and well -- with enough happening beyond the school to avoid becoming completely claustrophobic and (girl-)self-centered. And Oligarchy is a fine exploration of the odd fascination with food-intake and weight and body image -- though more could have been done with (or about) the deaths surrounding that.
       Thomas' writing and scenes are always a pleasure, cutting to the point -- but occasionally more development, in both some of the details and aspects of the story, might have helped here.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 February 2020

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Links:

Oligarchy: Reviews: Scarlett Thomas: Other books by Scarlett Thomas under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Scarlett Thomas was born in 1972.

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© 2020 the complete review

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