Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas: Sharp, funny and very, very dark

Cover imageIt’s been well over four years since Scarlett Thomas’ The Seed Collectors was published. Since then she’s produced three children’s books. I’d been eyeing the schedules hoping for another adult novel, wondering if her writing career had taken a permanent turn when Oligarchy turned up. This short, biting novel should please Thomas fans with its story of a Russian oligarch’s daughter who spends a year in a British boarding school and finds herself turning detective.

Fifteen-year-old Tash has been whisked from her mother’s grungy Moscow flat and installed in a Hertfordshire independent school for girls by the father she’s only just met. She’s been given a black Amex card, told to buy whatever she wants and sent frequent parcels of expensive goodies. She’s mystified by her fellow dormmates, all caught up in their obsessions with social media, boys, and above all, losing weight. They’re a snobby bunch, looking down their noses at the local girls, tormenting their teachers – particularly the few males amongst them – and fantasising about the school’s founder, Princess Augusta, reputedly given a black diamond by the sultan who raped her. Tash spends her holidays in London with Aunt Sonja, her father’s sister and cybersecurity expert/hacker, who seems just as fixated on her weight and her looks as Tash’s school friends. When the most waiflike of the anorexics is found drowned in the school’s lake, the therapists are called in tasked with purging the school’s pupils of their obsession with starving themselves, but Tash is convinced that there’s more to Bianca’s disappearance than meets the eye. Then someone else goes missing and Tash’s sleuthing takes off in earnest.

Somebody in a long-ago government decided that girls should read classic feminist literature and so they are studying Angela Carter and the school can’t do anything about it because it’s the law.

There’s something of the mad fable about Thomas’ whirlwind novella which slings a multitude of well-aimed barbs at all manner of things, from private schools to social media, eating fads to therapists. She saves her sharpest swipes for the obsessive concern with thinness, launching a few digs at gym culture for good measure. As you’d expect from Thomas, it’s very funny – Mr Hendrix’ failure to curb the girls’ sneers at the populace of Stevenage in all their tattooed glory is a treat – but it’s also very, very dark. Sharp observation, smart satire and the hint of a feminist ending for Tash, Oligarchy filled the Thomas gap for me. I’m hoping that we adults won’t have to wait another four years for her next book.

Canongate Books: Edinburgh 2019 9781786897794 212 pages Hardback

15 thoughts on “Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas: Sharp, funny and very, very dark

  1. Elle

    I loved this, but was also thoroughly disturbed by it: the relatively mild struggles I’ve had with disordered eating all came rushing back to the forefront of my mind as I read. In parts, it’s like a how-to manual for anorexia. I think that partly accounts for its incredible power (and it is really funny, even – especially – when it’s dark), but it’s something I’ve had to be aware of when sending or recommending it to customers.

    Reply
    1. Susan Osborne Post author

      Yes, I’ve had my own struggles with eating a long time ago and can see some people might need a warning about it. I was cheered by Tash’s own attitude and the way her aunt’s moved in a different direction towards the end.

      Reply

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