Only Ever Yours is the debut novel by Irish author Louise O’Neill. Winning Newcomer of the Year at the 2014 Irish Book Awards and The Bookseller YA Book Prize 2015, Louise has firmly established herself as an author to watch. Only Ever Yours is truly amazing.
Set in a dystopian future where the outside world has been destroyed and life only exists in created and confined spaces, Only Ever Yours tells the story of 16 year old freida as she prepares for the biggest moment of her life – the day that she finds out whether or not she has been selected as a companion to one of the wealthy males in society. It’s the day when her future is decided and freida’s only role is to look her best.
Only Ever Yours is entrancing and captivating, and I was completely absorbed by the story. Louise has this incredible ability to translate such a haunting plot in a way that felt so real and consequently so terrifying. The idea for Only Ever Yours came from a magazine that Louise read whilst in New York that had ‘red circles of shame drawn around the body parts of female celebrities deemed to be somehow unacceptable’. This sparked the idea of ‘a young girl in a bikini, standing in front of a classroom of other girls while a teacher in long black robes drew circles around her ‘defective’ body parts in red marker. The other girls were pounding their fists on their desks, shouting FAT, FAT, FAT.’
In many ways Only Ever Yours is a social commentary hidden within a dark story, much of which was inspired by Louise’s own life. Her ‘battles with poor body image’, ‘education at a single sex convent school’ and ‘experiences working in the fashion industry in New York’ all impacted on the book, which makes it so glaringly obvious how close to reality aspects of this book are.
The constant obsession with body image and the unreachable ‘perfect figure’; the acknowledgement but undeniable dismissal of mental health problems; the quickly diminishing attractiveness of a woman and her inevitable resort to plastic surgery; and male domination are ever present issues in our society and yet we’ve allowed them to become our ‘normal’. It’s not until we’re presented with a scenario that seems so disgusting, so appalling and so unthinkable that it becomes clear just how much needs to change.
I also think that Louise’s depiction of social media is praise-worthy because it is so brutally honest and opens up discussion on a topic that many people aren’t willing to discuss frankly. We so often hear about cyber-bulling where the motive is undoubtedly mean but we don’t often speak about our casual attitude towards judging others online. The girls in Only Ever Yours use an app which allows them to compare the images of 2 girls from the school and choose who they prefer, based solely on their looks.
Whilst this seems unthinkably shallow, we see this happening all the time and turn a blind eye, passing it off as fun. I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve seen statuses inviting others to ‘like and be rated between 1 and 10’. Despite it being ‘just a bit of fun’ for the majority that are awarded an 8 or 9 along with a throw away ‘you’re really pretty’, it can be completely mortifying for the few that are given a 5 or less, and yet we just accept it. We accept that young teenagers are publicly judging each other’s appearances and it’s utterly wrong. Louise has used her power as an author to convey such a powerful message about judgement and I really think it will make a positive difference.
As well as opening up discussion about body image and judgement, Louise has also started an incredibly important conversation about the role of women in society. Only Ever Yours portrays a world where women are bred for their beauty, and where only a select few are chosen to become companions (wives and mothers). After considering this idea, Louise says, ‘I wondered how that would come about and I remembered a book I had read when I was in India called ‘May You Be The Mother Of One Hundred Sons’ in which the author discussed the high rate of mortality amongst female babies. I imagined what would happen if this continued- would the womb naturally reject a female foetus?’
When reading this book I was reminded of The Handmaid’s Tale for many reasons but I think that the most important concept explored in both books is that of a woman’s name. In The Handmaid’s Tale the women are named after the men that they serve, and in Only Ever Yours the girl’s names all begin with a lower case letter; in both books the women’s names signify inferior status, an issue that is as relevant now as it has ever been.
I really, really loved this book and I think that Louise O’Neill absolutely deserves all of the praise that this has garnered. I am so pleased that Only Ever Yours has been selected by The Department of English at a Spanish university to form part of the syllabus for its ‘Literary Satire’ module and I hope that we can follow suit in the UK. Only Ever Yours is an important novel, and it’s a novel that I think everyone should read.
Thank you to Louise O’Neill for responding to my emails and so kindly chatting with me! Even if you don’t want to read her book (which you of course should), everyone must follow her on Twitter or Instagram because she is HILARIOUS.