In the darkly comic boarding-school world of ‘Oligarchy,’ being thin is everything

Bethanne Patrick

THE WASHINGTON POST – Scarlett Thomas, a British writer who excels at delivering novels about difficult subjects, turns her brilliant, incisive gaze to a boarding school in Oligarchy. The complex theme at the centre of PopCo was cryptography, and in The End of Mr Y, it was quantum physics.

Oligarchy goes in a slightly different, though no less complicated direction: Eating disorders. Thomas has spoken in the past about her own disordered eating, which includes “more than 100 different food rules.” She’s not alone. So many women struggle with weight and its implications for appearance, health, confidence and style.

When Natasha (“Tash”) arrives at the English boarding school in Hertfordshire to which her Russian oligarch father has sent her, she finds privileged girls obsessed with losing weight and being thin. They think about food and fat all the time, using cruel games to keep themselves accountable. “Bianca’s last game involved finding pictures of the celebrities with the fattest arms,” Thomas writes of one of Tash’s classmates. “The one before that was collecting screenshots of obese children from Instagram.”

As Tash and her friends invent their own treasury system, the adults around them remain foolishly clueless. One teacher encourages the girls to measure each other’s body mass index (BMI) with calipers. After Bianca disappears, a pair of strange therapists are brought in, though they hurt more than they help, taunting the students with what happens to those with late-stage eating disorders.

Bianca’s disappearance turns out to be evidence of something much darker than a bumbling faculty. She is found dead in the school pond. We soon learn that the headmaster, Dr Moone, has a nasty predilection for photographing students – and encouraging their skinniness.

It’s a bracing reminder that no matter how obsessively young people measure themselves against one another, their self-worth also comes from the grown-ups around them. Tash has a glamorous relation, Aunt Sonja, who occasionally swoops in and takes her to London for lunch and shopping. Turns out Aunt Sonja isn’t the enemy at all, just a tired single woman who loves her niece so much she funnels all of her own neuroses into her advice.

In her acknowledgments, the author writes, “This book came out of nowhere and surprised me and everyone around me.” If so, it may be because, for once, Thomas’ id overruled her ego. The result is a strange but urgent glimpse into society’s often conflicting expectations of girls.