untitled“The chastities keep asking me why I can’t sleep.”

I don’t ever like having to say the words, “I’m a feminist”. That’s not because I’m not one, because of course I am, but it’s merely that I don’t think it’s anything that needs to be said. Any decent human being presumably believes in equality betweeh the sexes, so it doesn’t even need to be said, right? Oh, there I go with my wistful naivety, pretending I don’t know what a mess the world is in. But these issues are right up there in Louise O’Neill’s novel, a book as sharp and finely honed as a cosmetic surgeon’s knife. Let’s take a look.

This is the story of freida, an eve who was created and designed and has only known one life, that of the School. All women live here until they are sixteen and in this environment, they are sculpted and perfected to be desirable to the menfolk who will one day own them. The dream for all these girls, of course, is to become a companion, the wife of a man. Some of those that are less fortunate will become concubines, used only for recreational sex rather than for breeding purposes. The really unlucky ones are forced to become chastities, the shaven-headed, sexless teachers at the School who suffer such injustices as (whisper it now) “growing old” and “dying of natural causes”.

freida is awaiting the Ceremony, a time when the eves will be selected by the men and they find out their place in the world. But freida has other things on her mind. Her best friend isabel has gone a bit strange. She’s started putting on weight – she’s far larger than the suggested 118 pounds – and she’s distancing herself from freida. As the pressure mounts and the stress causes freida to slip down the rankings of her peers, but she’s still desperate to keep the friendship of the new #1, megan, who will surely be won over by the most powerful man that will come for them. Time is running out and freida must do something drastic to save isabel and prove to her potential Husband that she is the right woman for him, providing she can just keep the weight off and keep her emotions under control. After all, boys don’t like girls who cause a scene…

From the off, this book is terrifying. We’re in a dystopian future where the oceans have risen and the remaining humans live in closed off zones in the centre of the old continents. Over the course of this transition, much changed. Humans got rid of anything that wasn’t necessary – animals, religion, etc – and created a society where only men are born, and women are created and exist only to birth more sons or provide them with pleasure. The School is a shocking place – this is Mean Girls on steroids – where the eves aren’t taught things like mathematics and science (after all, what man wants a companion that’s too intelligent?) but have lessons such as how to bottle up their unacceptable emotions, and the terrible Comparasion Studies, where two girls are hauled up in front of the class and the other girls have to tell them how they can improve. There’s an idea that there is always room for Improvement.

There are some great touches within here. The eves constant conversations about how beautiful they all look, while at the same time trying to outdo one another, and the endless descriptions of clothes and make up, two of the most important things in their lives. There’s also the fact that every surface in the School is mirrored, so that the girls can at all times see themselves and each other and be comparing features. My favourite touch, however, is that none of the female characters has a name that is capitalised. The few men we meet get capitals at the start of their names, and even get surnames, but the eves are property, and as such do not deserve proper names. Hell, even the drugs they’re being prescribed to keep them beautiful and controlled get capital letters, showing signs of a society where drugs are more important than women. There’s also a suggestion that the girls have chosen their own names, as the chastities refer to them all by number. The men, however, get impressive names, all seemingly stemming from great men of a long forgotten history – Darwin, Mahatma, Socrates, Albert, Sigmund, Winston, and so on.

While it’s obviously a fiction this book, like all good dystopian fiction it is a little bit too close for comfort. The eves are expected to be everything for their men, never say no to sex, and to remain beautiful at all times. We already seem to live in a world where women are judged solely on appearance in the media, and this is just taking the idea to its extreme. It’s worrying because it feels too familiar. And that makes me feel uncomfortable.

Male or female, this book is well worth reading as it might just open your eyes to the insanity of our world and what could happen if we let things go too far. I’m not suggesting that this stuff could actually happen, but it’s certainly food for thought. Think of it as Stepford Wives for the modern age, and you’re halfway there. Chilling, haunting, but incredibly smart.