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OLIGARCHY by Scarlett Thomas Kirkus Star


by Scarlett Thomas

Pub Date: Jan. 14th, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-64009-306-5
Publisher: Counterpoint

Eating disorders and suspected murder fuel the latest novel from the author of The Seed Collectors (2015, etc.).

The title of this slim book is as sly and slippery as the narrative itself. Our protagonist, Natasha, is whisked from penury in Russia to a British boarding school when her post-communism, new-money father takes an interest in her. She also establishes herself as one of the girls who leads the student body into disordered eating and light debauchery. Natasha’s transformation includes a fairy godmother in the form of Aunt Sonja, a London-based operator who gives Natasha an iPhone with unlimited data, a black American Express card, and world-weary advice about food and men. But Natasha keeps much of her own tale to herself even as she learns the folklore of her school. Someone named Princess Augusta appears in portraits hung throughout the classrooms and residences, and her story—or, at least, the story that the students tell each other—is both a cautionary tale and an inspiration for girls striving to be the thinnest. Thomas does a fantastic job of capturing the mental and verbal style of a contemporary teen without being precious or exasperating. She also imbues Tash with a signature feature of all adolescents ever, probably: a desire to grow up faster. While Aunt Sonja is cooing over her perfect complexion, Tash is thinking, “But everyone has it, this skin that says I’m young and I know nothing. Literally everyone she knows apart from Lissa has the same skin—and even Lissa’s would be OK if she used the right toner—and so to compete she needs something else. Why do adults not understand that?” The Amex might allow Tash to buy Balenciaga boots, but what she really wants is adventure. She wants to “go into the woods and fight monsters”—a wish that sort of comes true when people at her school start dropping dead. This is a weird, twisty book, and anyone familiar with Thomas’ oeuvre will expect the kind of dark humor that is only possible from a writer of profound compassion. Strong stuff.

Another strange delight from one of the United Kingdom’s most interesting authors.